About a year ago, a young woman walked into my office at First Presbyterian Church in Vero Beach, Florida. She was well-dressed and well-spoken. She began to tell me about how she had been recently hired by a local company for a new job. Unfortunately, that job did not last long and she found herself out of a job, out of a house and into her car. She needed help. She needed help fast. As we spoke, I could hear the desperation in her voice.
I asked the usual questions: “Have you been abused by a boyfriend or husband?” “No.” “Do you have a substance abuse problem?” “No.” “Do you have children?” “No.” “Have you contacted Treasure Coast Homeless Services Council?” “Yes, but they cannot help me because I am single, have not been abused, have not abused drugs or alcohol and have no children.” Other than offering her a few nights at a local hotel, I couldn’t really help, either.
She got up from across the desk and walked out with some gas money, a bag of food and mostly no help at all. At that moment I began to notice that we had a gap in housing for members of our community. If you are experiencing homelessness and are battered, addicted, with children or a veteran, there is housing for you. If you are a single male without these issues and experience chronic homelessness, there is housing for you in Vero Beach. However, if you are a single, unaccompanied female without addiction or mental illness, there is nowhere to find safe and stable housing in our community.
What could we do?
Shortly after this conversation I received an email from a member of my congregation who heard through the grapevine that leaders from several of our churches were getting together to begin thinking about housing issues for single, unaccompanied women. I gathered some members of the church’s mission and social concerns committee and we invited ourselves to the first meeting.
It turns out that just across town at Community Church (a congregation affiliated with the United Church of Christ), members were also noticing the absence of appropriate housing for unaccompanied women in our community. Beth Livers, a local real estate agent and member of Community Church, found a property that was recently on the market that might be just the thing that could solve this problem. In November of 2016 we began the conversation with Louise Hubbard, the director of Treasure Coast Homeless Services Council about how we might accomplish this common mission.
Beth offered a small group of churches, represented by pastors and congregation members, the opportunity to buy two duplexes (4 total units) to house up to 16 women when totally operational. The cost would be just north of $400,000. Treasure Coast Homeless Services Council had saved $100,000 in order to purchase something in the future that would meet this very need. The future was now and they needed help from the community.
Could we raise $300,000 to buy a piece of property and turn around and give that property away with no strings attached? Could several churches from different denominational affiliations, and even different religious traditions, work together to accomplish this goal and meet this need within our community? Could we do it in less than 60 days, especially if those 60 days are over the Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah holidays? And could we do it all without advertising too much that we were trying to create some housing for single women who have experienced homelessness? Some were skeptical. I was one of them.
Meetings continued, other churches came on board, the facility was inspected, the price was reduced and the deadline was coming near. Sixty days didn’t seem like quite enough time. Each of the church members, synagogue leaders and pastors went back to their respective churches and began to tell the story about the need for “rapid rehousing” for unaccompanied women in our community. Each of us had a story to tell that was similar to my experience with the woman mentioned earlier.
We would explain to them, as it was explained to us, that rapid rehousing was a way to get people off the street quickly and get them in safe and stable housing. As Leeanne Sacino, the assistant director for Treasure Coast Homeless Services Council, said, this would offer “a safe place for women to reside while they solve barriers to long-term housing.” There would be no program, there would be no hoops and there would be no (or little) red tape. Leeanne and Louise and the rest of their staff would work as quickly as possible to offer hope for up to 16 women at a time. The goal would be to get them rehoused in long-term housing within three to four months. Once these women were safe, then the Treasure Coast staff would work with them to identify and breakdown the barriers for housing.
But could it really happen?
By Epiphany, this group of faithful people and their respective churches had raised $220,000 and were still $80,000 short of our goal to purchase and do renovations. Closing was just a few weeks away and we were not sure that it was going to happen.
However, by January 24, 2017, six churches and 12 individuals, with God’s guidance, raised the funds needed to purchase the duplexes for this rapid rehousing project. This was done in less than 60 days. It was done with several emails, phone calls, heart-to-heart conversations and a lot of prayer. On February 24, 2017, the Treasure Coast Homeless Services Council was the proud owner of a shelter for unaccompanied women.
Now what do we call it?
At one of the many meetings for this project someone suggested that we name the house Turning Pointe. There was great discussion about how this was meant to be a place for women in our community at their greatest need to turn their lives around and get back on their feet. There was some appreciation to the thought behind the name, but not the name itself. Louise Hubbard indicated that the name sounded more like a drug rehab facility instead of a “house.” Turning Pointe was out.
So we went where faithful people go to think about how God has provided for God’s people. What are the Scriptures that call our attention to showing hospitality to strangers? What are the stories of God’s providence that we might tell through this shelter? What are the stories of hope, healing and wholeness?
As we were beginning to discuss a name that is grounded in the story of God and that would honor all those who would live in the house and all those who would make the house possible, someone lifted up the story of Ruth. After the death of her father-in-law, brother-in-law and husband, Ruth and Naomi, her mother-in-law, and Orpah, her sister-in-law, decided to go back to Judah. Naomi decided that she would not make Ruth and Orpah follow her to Judah and, instead, implored them to stay in Moab. After some weeping, Orpah agreed. Ruth, however, persisted.
“Do not press me to leave you
or turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
Where you lodge, I will lodge”
Eureka! We found it. The unaccompanied women in our community needed a safe place to live, a safe place to call home, even if just for a little while. When someone asked them at a job interview where they live, they wouldn’t have to tell them they live in a shelter. When someone inquired at the DMV where they reside, they wouldn’t have to say Turning Pointe. No, when someone asked about their living arrangements they could say with pride and hope, “I live at Naomi’s House.”
What can we offer?
It was important to that group gathered over those several months to offer not just a shelter, not just rapid rehousing, and not just a bed. It was important to offer hope.
Now Naomi’s House is operational and unaccompanied women are being referred by pastors, rabbis and church and synagogue members. It is our hope that they find the safety and stability they need to deal with their barriers to long-term housing. Throughout this process I have been amazed at what God can do in the midst of a diverse community and through different religious traditions and Christian denominations. Housing does not have to be a crisis when we work together as God’s people.
In the future, a woman may walk in to my office and sit across from me at my desk. She will tell me the story of how she lost her job, lost her loved one, lost her house or any number of ways that she has found herself experiencing homelessness. Because of Naomi’s House I will have the opportunity to offer her hope not because she has been abused, is addicted or has children, but because she is a child of God and deserves the hospitality of God’s people.
C. Michael York is associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Vero Beach, Florida. His wife Erin and he serve as foster parents along with raising two daughters, Vera and Hattie.