“I was surprised at how it all happened so fast,” said Christian Ziegler, a 13-year old attending Gulfview Middle School.
Ziegler and a handful of local teens slept outside or in tents at First Presbyterian Church of Naples on Saturday, Nov. 10. The lockout was coordinated by Faith Communities to End Homelessness, a collaborative partnership among 12 local faith communities that was started earlier this year in response to a request for help with outreach and awareness from the Collier County Hungry and Homeless Coalition. The lockout was held in recognition of National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week, Nov. 16-24.
In addition to sleeping outside, Ziegler and his friends were visited by two young homeless men who were asked to come and speak. One of the young men told the youths that he became homeless after his backpack was stolen.
“All he did was fall asleep on a bench outside a restaurant and when he woke up, he was homeless,” said Ziegler.
The young man had come to Naples to locate his father. He found him, but his father turned him away so he bought a bus ticket back home. Then, all his money, clothing and the bus ticket were stolen.
The men told the youth that another big factor that led to their homelessness was alcohol abuse. Both admitted that their parents drank excessively and that this created a volatile home environment. Consequently, both men turned to alcohol and drugs, but are now overcoming their addictions through Justin’s Place, a faith-based program at St. Matthew’s House.
While the Coalition coordinates direct services with other agencies like the Collier County Housing Authority, Youth Haven, the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, David Lawrence Center, St. Matthews House and the Collier County Public Schools, Faith Communities to End Homelessness focuses on increasing awareness within the community, and more directly, to members of its congregations.
“As part of Homelessness Awareness Week, I had agreed to lead a sermon on homelessness at our church,” said First Presbyterian Church of Naples’ Associate Pastor Rev. Jonathan Evans. “But when I learned that there are 1,050 homeless children in the area, I knew we had a bigger responsibility. The lockout helped us teach our youth about the painful realities around them.”
Evans went on to say, “When the Word of God is formed in us, we become change agents in the world; we are difference makers in the lives of others. We show love; are moved to care; are moved to act. A church that isn’t living for God’s kingdom, that is not worshipping God with a depth of love, is a church that won’t survive. With love for others like the homeless, we have integrity, a depth, and a wholeness to our worship.”
The number of homeless children is determined by a Collier County Public School Homeless Education liaison, whose data reveals a surprising reality: that the majority of these children are not living in Immokalee, but are found in every public school.
“Families are the new face of homeless,” said Executive Director of the Coalition Debra Mahr. “Most people think the homeless are single people. But in reality, most homeless cases in Collier consist of a parent and two children. They are living as guests in what are usually unstable or unsafe homes with a deadline to leave.”
As the sun rose on Sunday morning, Makenzie Fort, a student at Naples High School who participated in the lockout, said she just wanted a shower.
Evans said the youths ate a stew that consisted of peas, rice, beans and soy protein. “It’s the same items we packed into bags during our Meals of Hope packing event last spring.”
Emily Hogan and Hayley Reid, students at Gulfview Middle School, were surprised to hear a story by one of the youth advisors, Elder Mark Owens, about a local homeless woman that often sleeps on a bench and then leaves $5 on it in the morning.
“Caring for others as part of our worship, especially those whom it costs us to care for, is what we are asked to do,” said Evans.
Unfortunately, a staggering reality is the lack of affordable housing in Collier County. According to Mahr, a family needs to earn $18.44 per hour (take home) in order to afford a modest rental, two-bedroom home in Collier County. The good news is that since January, the Coalition and its partners have placed 32 families (60 children) into permanent housing through its rapid rehousing program.
Today, at-risk, runaway or homeless teens can visit Youth Haven’s drop-in center at 5867 Whitaker Road, where they can obtain counseling, tutoring or college application assistance, take a hot shower, relax in a judgment-free environment, or do laundry.
Faith Communities to End Homelessness have made a pledge to help the Coalition reach its 10-year goal: to end homelessness in Collier County by 2020. Join the challenge and find out more at fcehcollier.com.