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Hospitality for the homeless

Downtown church turns front porch into shelter for growing number of downtown homeless

Photo: Rob Bartlett, License: N/A

Rob Bartlett

“They don’t have enough shelters for women in this city,” she says, and women are more vulnerable than men out on the streets.

Kimble and her fiancé, Gary Hubbard, stay at the church because it’s safe and free. Hubbard was one of a group of Parramore residents who found work with Sewell Masonry, a minority-owned contractor hired to help construct the Amway Center beginning in 2009. Sewell hired a handful of locals, including Hubbard. It trained them in masonry and put them to work laying bricks. Once the job was finished, Hubbard says, the work dried up; now he’s hoping that when the city begins demolition on the old Amway Arena, he’ll be able to find a job again. At least for a little while.

According to J.R. Ross, director of the Downtown Baptist Church’s Friends in Transition program (which is what the church calls the support system formed to help those who sleep on the porch) many of the people who flock here nightly helped build the environment that city residents often take for granted. Spend an hour or two talking to the individuals gathered at the church for the night, and you’re likely to meet people who worked on the Amway Center or Baldwin Park or some of the newer high-rise buildings that make up the city skyline. Others moved here from other cities or states to find work, but once the recession set in, jobs became scarce.

“I’ve had engineers here, we’ve had a lot of laborers, construction workers, a dental hygienist,” says Ross, who once spent his nights sleeping out on this porch, too. “We’ve had all walks of life sleep out here. They’re here for all different reasons, but it’s not by choice. People don’t realize that they may be only one to three paychecks away from being homeless. It’s a scary thought. One guy went through a divorce and next thing you know, he’s out on the streets. It could be a divorce, job loss, anything. But it’s not choice. It’s anything but choice.”

Although the media has paid a lot of attention lately to homeless families in Central Florida – the New York Times and 60 Minutes have both done stories on homeless kids and teens in the region – homeless men and women without children rarely receive such sympathetic treatment. If anything, says Peete, they tend to be looked at as an inconvenience by those who find homeless people unsettling or threatening. “We’re not out here breaking into people’s houses,” Peete says. “Most people out here are just trying to get their basic needs met.”

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