WINTER GARDEN – Matthew's Hope is in dire financial straits, and it's not because of a lack of monetary donations or misappropriation of funds. A 2016 IRS audit showed clean and healthy books, founder Scott Billue said.
Contributions are steadily being made to help West Orange County's homeless individuals and families get back on their feet. The problem lies in the increased number of people in the last few months who have been in need of what is provided through the faith-based homeless ministry, which is based in Winter Garden.
Since late April, an average of 65 guests have stepped through the ministry's doors each week for help with services such as haircuts, laundry, food pantry and clothing, as well as medical and dental. Last summer’s average was 39 people weekly.
“Our donation level has not gone down; it continues to grow,” Billue said. “Our need outpaces that over the last nine or 10 weeks. (Last Tuesday) we had a record day. Normally the fourth Tuesday of the month is our slowest day. We've seen people we haven't seen in a while.”
Tuesdays are intake days at Matthew’s Hope, when people come in for the services. In the first quarter, 48 people were served. In the second quarter, 60 sought assistance.
Why the uptick in needs for shelter, food, basic necessities and medical care?
Billue contributed it to a trifecta of factors: development, the weather and a decrease in summer meal plans.
“One, there's so much development in Central Florida right now that they're knocking down the woods to build houses, and these people have no place to go,” Billue said. Two, the rain kills us. When it rains, all their stuff gets wet. Tents get ripped in the storm. So many of our camps are underwater, literally; they're bringing pallets into the woods to put their stuff on. And three, school is out, and there have been cutbacks in a lot of programs, including those that feed the children when they're out for the summer.”
This increase in clients in the last 10 weeks means the organization is dipping into its reserve funds. Typically, fewer donations come in during the summer months, Billue said, but that, coupled with the higher number of folks needing assistance, has depleted the reserves.
“By October or November, I'll be seeing a different story,” he said. “But we won't make it unless something happens in the next week or two. … There is no fat to trim.”
Nancy Pfaff, the staff nurse, has seen more people coming in with basic medical needs. Two weeks ago, she facilitated the care of 27 people, connecting them with Florida Hospital or a doctor. Last week, that number jumped to 31.
“And when you send them out, you have to buy a bus pass for them,” Billue said. “Everything we do has a cost to it. … People like to feed the homeless people. But they don't understand that you need some place to keep the food and you have to have someone to run the place and pest control to keep bugs out.”
Seven part-time employees tackle full-time work. Volunteers put in many hours, too.
“When you look at the next three months, and compare to last year's giving — projecting out, we're in the position to be short $10k every time,” Billue said.
From its inception in 2010 until July 2016, Matthew's Hope was located on the property of West Orange Church of Christ and paid no rent. For nearly a year, the organization has paid more than $2,000 per month for office and pantry space on South Woodland Street, in addition to the mortgage for the preschool and outreach center on Ninth Street.
With the move, the organization lost its garden, as well, which produced $12,000 in blueberries alone in one season, Billue said. The car-detailing business ended, too.
“Giving is always down for every organization in the summer ... but usually we have other sources of income, such as our garden, which we had to close last year,” said former Matthew’s Hope treasurer Lori Gibson.
Changes in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program mean anyone 49 and younger who is unemployed, able-bodied and without dependents must volunteer 20 hours a week. Many of the clients had been putting in their hours at the garden as an alternative.
If they don’t get their hours in with the government, they don’t receive their food stamps, so more people are relying solely on Matthew’s Hope to fill that need, Gibson said.
In the next few days, the Matthew's Hope board might be making the big decision of whether it needs to give up four of its rental units used for the transitional housing program. It currently houses qualified people in houses on Morgan Street and duplexes on West Bay Street.
“If we don't raise enough money to get us through the summer, we're going to have to cut some of the transitional housing, and we're not in the business to make people homeless,” Gibson said. “The board doesn’t want to cut anything. This whole outreach is to avoid having to cut anything and to get us through the summer.”
Board members tasked with having to make these decisions are Gibson, Billue, Jim Densmore, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, Ron Sikes, Deb Linden, Bruce Young, Warren Channell, Joseph McMullen, David Vanz, Lori Trainer, David Powers, Samantha Robinson, Pastor Adam Barcott and Russ Carlson. The organization had 18 board members, but in spring 2016, six resigned — several after learning Billue was dealing with personal issues and others because they felt he should have taken a longer hiatus before returning.
“It sickens me to think that I might have to say to (the guests), we can't do this anymore,” Billue said.
ON THE HORIZON
The current board is hoping Matthew’s Hope can stay open until Oct. 1, when they have the OK from the city of Winter Garden to break ground on a new garden on leased land on Ninth Street. There, the organization can set up a fruit and vegetable stand to sell their edibles to the public.
“We have donors lined up to help with the garden – monetary donors who want to help us get the garden back up and running,” Gibson said. “We have someone to help us with irrigation.
“I don't have worries about the garden,” she said. “I have worries about getting up to that point.”
If the organization can stay afloat for a few more months, there is an opportunity to bring together all the Matthew’s Hope functions — the outreach center, administrative offices, pantries, classrooms and the Hope Chest — under one roof in a warehouse on Story Road across from Orange Technical College – Westside Campus.
The school is creating a coffee shop, and Matthew’s Hope guests are building the tables. Billue said a new local restaurant has come to him inquiring about building its tables and bar.
“The future looks bright if we can get there,” Billue said.
“I want people to know that this is not because money is not coming in. Funds are coming in,” he said. “Our books are clean; we truly are the victims of our own success.”
Contact Amy Quesinberry at [email protected].