In the span of 10 years, Matthew’s Hope has increased the opportunities for the homeless men, women and families in West Orange County. What started as a temporary shelter for the homeless during freezing weather conditions has expanded multiple times to include a larger operational space, preschool and daycare, workshop and mental health service.
Scott Billue founded the ministry a decade ago with the intentions of getting homeless residents and families back on their feet and off the streets. The mission holds true still today.
Donations are vital to the organization, and Matthew’s Hope relies on regular donors and annual fundraisers to help fund the various programs offered by the homeless ministry. An open house, scheduled for last week, and two festivals that draw thousands of people in Ocoee and Winter Garden have been canceled due to the coronavirus, and this is a hard blow to the program.
“The hard part is trying to stay afloat,” Billue said. “If I had to pay everything we owe right now, we’d be insolvent. We’re working on borrowed money. That’s something we’ve never done before.
For now, the nonprofit has closed its doors to its regular services and is working as a mobile service until the coronavirus pandemic passes. It operates Tuesdays and Thursdays to get necessities to people who live outdoors.
“A lot of other resources that were available to them have closed down temporarily,” Billue said.
Instead of picking up homeless folks and taking them back to the Matthew’s Hope facility, three teams go out twice a week — a necessities team with nonperishable food, basic clothing and hygiene items; a medical team; and a meal team, which last week handed out 75 Subway subs and 75 Chick-fil-A sandwiches.
“We’re following our bus route, and we’re going out to the camps. If we know where they are camping, parking, we’re going to find them and do what we can do,” he said.
Financial donations always are needed, as are donations of travel-size products that easily fit into backpacks.
There have been many success stories to come out of Matthew’s Hope, and each of them is different. Here are 10.
Sherry Easley and her two daughters — the oldest, Alivia Easley, with Down syndrome — were living in a hotel, and with little money, they were close to having to live in their car. Sherry Easley went to her church and prayed for resolution — and her pastor invited the three to live with him and his wife.
Shortly after, she began the rigorous Matthew’s Hope program, which is designed to address every aspect of the homeless population’s issues one by one. She worked with Matthew’s Hope for two years, learning how to advocate for her daughter and handle finances.
Today, Sherry and Alivia Easley live in an apartment in Clermont. She works at her church in a custodial capacity and at Special Hearts Farm, where Alivia Easley and other adults with disabilities learn farming and gardening techniques and engage in business opportunities.
“I work both jobs, and I just do the next right thing,” she said. “And I learned the next right thing through Matthew’s Hope.”
After a failed 27-year marriage, Sherry Easley turned to alcohol to numb the pain and lost her $62,000 job.
“The only thing God blessed me with is to keep my kids,” she said. “And then I got into Matthew’s Hope, and they don’t play. You either work it or you don’t. … It’s the best thing
I’ve ever done in my life. … Matthew’s Hope says you are the only one to do it. God says, you can do it.”
Easley moved her family into the program’s transitional housing for two years, working on herself and working her way through the Matthew’s Hope programs. She had the added task of making sure Alivia Easley is taken care of in the future.
Sherry Easley’s younger daughter, Kelly Easley, went through the program, as well. She obtained her GED certificate, attended Orange Technical College, saved $6,000 and got her own apartment. Sherry Easley said she has a good job and is engaged to be married.
Of all the lessons Matthew’s Hope has taught her, Sherry Easley said learning to be independent is the most important one.
“And that I’m worthy, and that I matter,” she added.
“Just to know how much MH has done for me, I don’t have words,” Sherry Easley said. “I’m no longer the homeless lady.”
DeAndre Loggins was homeless for about a year and half when he discovered Matthew’s Hope.
He lived in a hotel, and when he couldn’t afford to pay for the room, he resorted to couch surfing, staying at various people’s homes each night. He had just gotten out of jail, and because he had a felony on his record, finding a job was difficult.
The homeless ministry was still in its infancy, and the Garden of Eatin’ was just getting started. Matthew’s Hope worked with Loggins for 14 months. He was advised to petition the court, and the felony was expunged, he said, which gave him a better chance of getting a job. Matthew’s Hope provided an airplane ticket to Chicago, where Loggins is from, and he started working at Texas Roadhouse.
A year later, he moved to Las Vegas to attend The Art Institute of Las Vegas and study culinary management. He said he cooked at places such as Mandalay Bay, the Plaza Hotel & Casino and the MGM Grand.
“My main thing I did was I worked as a personal chef,” Loggins said. “I took it upon myself, and I worked for two families until I was ready to graduate.”
When one of the families moved to New Mexico, Loggins went with them. After a few more moves and job changes, Loggins now lives in San Diego and is a sous chef at Sugar Factory.
He is married with four children and a four-bedroom house — far removed from the life he once had with a hotel room or friend’s sofa as his home base. But he has even bigger goals.
“I don’t consider myself successful until I can tell my momma she doesn’t have to work anymore,” Loggins said.
“I really don’t think I would have gotten very far (without Matthew’s Hope),” he said. “The biggest lesson I learned is being given a second chance at doing something. If you have the chance to do something, I think you should just do it.”
Melissa Desruisseaux had been homeless for about six months when she accepted Matthew’s Hope’s services. She lived in the transitional housing for several months before getting her own place to live. She will soon be moving to an apartment in Clermont.
“Being on my own taught me I never wanted to be in that situation again and not be able to stand on my own two feet,” Desruisseaux said. “Matthew’s Hope was a great support while I was trying to get myself together. … They came at a time when I kind of had no place, nobody, so they were a safe haven.”
She works in childcare and is going to school. She attends Bible study at Matthew’s Hope on occasion.
“They taught me a lot,” Desruisseaux said. “I learned how to resurface furniture. It’s very therapeutic and calming. … You’re listening to music and zoning out. … I can decorate my house by picking up furniture and working on it.”
What is the most important lesson she learned?
“I learned it’s the simplest things; to budget myself. I learned how to budget and only go after things I needed. I didn’t need new things, I just needed the essentials. That’s all I needed. I think that’s the biggest thing for me.”
Chiffon was homeless with two young daughters when she went to Matthew’s Hope. She had taken the classes necessary for a nursing degree but did not have a license to practice because she couldn’t afford the cost.
Matthew’s Hope provided her a home and a support system and allowed her to work on campus to earn “points” that were then backed with dollars to allow her to get the study materials, pay the fees and test for her nursing license. She was paired with a financial adviser to help her plan for her future and provided a tutor and child care for her children so she could study.
Chiffon obtained her nursing license, found a high-paying job and was able to move to her own apartment with all of her move-in expenses paid and a well-funded savings account. She and the girls are thriving in their new life.
Greg was a “broken alcoholic who lost his business and home after becoming depressed after losing a number of families members in a short time,” Billue said.
Since finding Matthew’s Hope, Greg has maintained sobriety for three years. He has used earned points to get dentures, a vehicle and a computer for school. He has earned an Associate in Arts in computer graphics interactive at Valencia College. Now in his third year at Valencia, Greg works as Hope Chest shop foreman and does the layout and design for the Moving Forward magazine.
Travis was crippled with pain and suffered from depression when he started with Matthew’s Hope. When he got more comfortable being around people, he oriented new guests while sharing the Bible. He enrolled in a medical home and received mental health counseling. Although he still experiences pain, he now lives in an apartment.
James is a former heroin addict and member of a street gang, Billue said.
“He got cleaned up, worked hard, helped build out the transitional housing and preschool and paid down debts,” he said. “He is still clean and now working as a youth pastor.”
John lost his living situation because of a domestic issue, Billue said. He couldn’t get his own place because he didn’t have the upfront deposits required and ended up sleeping in his car.
“Matthew’s Hope were the only people that trusted me, that believed in me enough to give me a chance,” John said. “I did whatever was asked, including getting sober.”
He landed a job in the Florida Keys that included housing, but the recent coronavirus outbreak led to a massive layoff.
“Matthews Hope saved me once again and welcomed me back,” he said. “I’m still sober, by the way.”
Hope began the Matthew’s Hope Moving Forward Transitional Housing Program after completing other required services. She was homeless and working toward reunification with her son.
“Hope came into the program with many challenges,” Billue said. “She was jobless, broken emotionally and mentally due to past abuse, in addition to having a low level of confidence, which made it difficult for her to obtain a job.”
Her confidence grew when she entered safe, stable housing and was reunited with her son. She benefited from office work opportunities and supportive services and improved her communication and organization skills and has secured a full-time job in a professional environment with benefits. Hope is still working to graduate from the Matthew’s Hope program but is on her way to financial stability and self-sustainability. She has a bachelor’s degree in business from Auburn University.
“Karen became homeless after fleeing an abusive relationship that left her bruised, beaten and emotionally destroyed,” Billue said. “She came to us scared and mistrustful, but with a strong will and a desire to change her life. Matthew’s Hope gave her a safe place to live, arranged counseling …, provided support and life skills classes, assisted her in purchasing a vehicle and helped her work through the different stages of the transitional housing program.”
Karen was able to gain stable employment and earn a promotion to a management position. She successfully graduated the program with the money and financial skills to move into a rental home with all of her deposits and rent covered and money in the bank to help her move forward independently.
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.