Giving hope to the homeless through clothes, food, faith and fellowship
Jul 31, 2014
By NICOLE KALIL
Florida Baptist Witness

Lem Simmons is not your typical pastor. In fact, most people would not identify him as a member of the clergy just by looking at him.

With his cap turned backward and a body covered with tattoos, he blends in with the homeless and hopeless people in Gainesville where he ministers.
 
Unfortunately, tens of thousands of people statewide need help from Simmons and others like him. Florida has the third-largest population of homeless people of any state in the country, according to Florida’s Council on Homelessness.
 
Last January, local communities took a census of their homeless populations. They counted 41,335 people who were “living on the street or in an emergency shelter.” While that number is one of the highest in the country, it is actually a decrease from the 2013 census, which counted 45,364 homeless people.
 
The plight of the homeless has not gone unnoticed by Florida Southern Baptists. People like Simmons are reaching into their communities in order to make a difference, offering hope and help.
 
And the statistics seem to indicate that they are indeed making a difference.
 
In a special report, the Florida Baptist Witness looked at what Southern Baptists are doing in different parts of the state to minister to their homeless populations. The results were encouraging, even though much work remains to be done.
 
Central Florida
 
SHOWING LOVE Children of God Worship Center Pastor Lem Simmons (left)&8200;and members of his church feed and minister to the homeless in downtown Gainesville every Monday. Children of God Worship Center photo
Each Monday night, Simmons and members from his Southern Baptist church, Children of God Worship Center in Gainesville, go to Bo Diddley Community Plaza in downtown Gainesville to feed and minister to the homeless that have gathered there. They will feed anywhere from 50 to 90 people in any given week.
 
But Simmons says it is more than the food that the people are coming for. He and the members of his congregation are offering hope. As the homeless hear about God’s love for them and begin to grow in their faith, they are filled with hope that they will not be homeless forever.
 
Simmons has made it a point to serve because he loves people, not because he sees it as his Christian duty. He says people can see right through that and they won’t respond.
 
“When we first started coming out to Bo Diddley Plaza, the people were standoff-ish. They didn’t want to talk,” he said.
 
But Simmons and his group kept coming out, offering a meal, a word of Scripture, and an ear to listen. It was the love they had for God and people that won them over.
 
A sincere love for people and a willingness to follow the Lord’s command to love your neighbor is also what has driven Rick and Vicki Lawrence to reach out to people in need in Alachua County. 
 
Rick and Vicki asked themselves: If we really love people, do we care about the homeless? And if we say we do, would we be willing to provide a home for someone in need of one? The answer had to be yes.
 
So they did. They started by allowing one homeless woman, and then another and then yet another to stay with them in an effort to keep them off the streets. But so many more were in need. Bigger measures were required.
 
It was from this need that Here’s Hope Ministries, a Southern Baptist program, was born. In helping these women, the Lawrences began to learn about the services available to the homeless in Alachua County—and the challenges some have in accessing those services. As she came in contact with them, Vicki really began to talk to homeless women to discover what their needs are.  
 
Soon, word got out and people were calling Rick and Vicki to tell them about people in desperate situations and to see if they could help connect them to resources in the area. As they received more and more calls, they realized the homeless problem was bigger than they originally thought.
 
The Lawrences began talking to area churches, looking for partners who shared their vision. They found one such partner in Ridge View Baptist Church in Gainesville. The church offered them some space, and it has become the Here’s Hope Ministry Center.
 
As they began to receive donations, it occurred to the Lawrences that they had their own ideas about what homeless people might need, but they really weren’t sure. They decided the best thing to do would be to talk to the people themselves. They began to conduct interviews, and passed along what they learned to area churches so they would know what kinds of things to donate.
 
But Here’s Hope has bigger aspirations. In their interviews with area homeless people, the two biggest humanitarian needs they discovered were having a place to shower and a way to wash their clothes. Lawrence hopes to add washers and dryers to their ministry center to help meet that need.
 
Another huge issue for people without an address is being able to apply for and collect financial assistance, such as food stamps or disability. With that in mind, Here’s Hope is thinking of letting their ministry center serve as an address for people who need it in order to apply for food stamps or request a birth certificate.
 
Aside from meeting their physical needs, Here’s Hope, like Lem Simmons at Children of God Worship Center, wants to meet emotional and spiritual needs when possible. They are encouraging congregations not just to donate money, but time as well.
 
They would like to have each homeless person sponsored by someone who would spend time with them, listen to them and invest a bit of themselves into someone in need.
 
By all appearances, it is the relational aspect that really translates into loving others as Jesus did.
 
The people at The Church at South Lake, an SBC-affiliated church in Clermont are living out their love for others by responding to hungry and homeless school kids through a ministry called Buses n’ Backpacks.
 
During the 2012-2013 school year, public schools in Florida identified 70,215 students as homeless, which includes families that have lost their housing and are staying with relatives or friends. In Lake County, where The Church at South Lake is located, there are 3,000.
 
Back when they started in 2005, Buses n’ Backpacks forged a relationship with one principal at one elementary school and committed to helping 15 children. Now they are working with 16 principals and serving weekend meals to 500 elementary, middle and high school students in the Lake County School District.
 
Schools are asked to identify their most desperate students. Students take a card home asking their parents if they want to participate. In the nine years that Buses n’ Backpacks has been serving Lake County students, they have only received three cards declining the offer of food.
Once a child is signed up, they are issued a backpack on Friday that contains two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners, and two snacks. The student returns the backpack to school on Monday, and they are issued another backpack the next Friday. The backpacks are not marked with logos and do not stand out in any way in an effort to be discreet and not embarrass the children.
 
The goal for Buses n’ Backpacks is not to evangelize on the school campus, but to connect with the children in a way that makes a difference to the child.
 
And what’s happening is the volunteers at Buses n’ Backpacks are not only affecting the children, but adults in the schools and the community as well.
 
“Teachers come to our church because they have actually witnessed us showing people the love and compassion of Jesus,” says Tandy Hammond, Director of Buses n’ Backpacks at The Church at South Lake.
 
Buses n’ Backpacks depends on the donations it receives and the volunteers that come alongside them to keep school children in Lake County fed. They have more than 80 regular volunteers, with as many as 100 more for special events. As many as 200 volunteers from the community work with them at some point every year.
 
Food donations are also welcome. Approximately a third of Buses n’ Backpacks’ food is purchased from the Second Harvest Food Bank; another third comes from wise purchases made by volunteers from the local grocery chains; and the final third is donated from food drives held by schools and local businesses.
 
Hammond has also started to apply for state grants to help fund their ministry. In 2013, the state legislature appropriated $4 million to fund flexible grants to help support local efforts to reduce homelessness.
 
Sun Coast region
 
The people at Azalea Park Baptist Church in St. Petersburg are responding to the needs of school children in their area by teaming up with the Pinellas County School Board to make a difference in schools with a predominance of low-income families.
 
Through Pack A Sack 4 Kids, an interdenominational community outreach program addressing the problem of chronic hunger in area elementary schools, the people of Azalea Baptist gather each week to provide food to hungry children that have been identified as such by their school.
 
Azalea Baptist has partnered with two schools in their area, Azalea Elementary and 74th Street Elementary, to feed almost 100 hungry children in those two schools.
 
It is the volunteer spirit of the church that makes it all possible. On Tuesdays, members gather to set up the food in a staging area to help enable the packing. On Wednesdays, the youth lead the charge and begin packing up all the food that has been purchased through the donations of the members.
 
Each sack contains 13-14 food items, enough for two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners. The food is put into plastic bags, and the bags are then placed in large containers that are delivered to the schools on Thursday for Friday distribution.
 
Azalea Baptist has been participating with Pack A Sack for three years, pausing only during school holidays. Those taking part in the program say they were shocked at the extent of hunger in their own community after they watched requests for food skyrocket to 100 in the first six weeks.
 
South Florida
 
The people of First Baptist Church of Pompano have been meeting the needs of the homeless in their community for the last 20 years through a ministry called The Lord’s Gift House.
 
In the days and weeks after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the members of the church were asked to collect clothing donations to help their neighbors to the south, who had been hit hardest.
 
The response was so large that the church had more clothes than they knew what to do with. When the need ran out before the clothes did, they stored the remainder in what once had been the caretaker’s house adjacent to the church. The clothes filled the entire house from floor to ceiling. Once the clothes were sorted, they began to invite the homeless in their community to pick out a couple of sets of clothing.
 
From there, the ministry has grown to encompass much more.
 
Every Saturday for the last 20 years, The Lord’s Gift House and its volunteers have hosted an outdoor worship service for the homeless they serve in their Pompano community. Volunteers begin setting up chairs and the sound system as early as 6 a.m., while others prepare snacks. By 9:45 a.m., the service has ended and volunteers begin to set up tables for an afternoon meal. While setup takes place, people can begin to come through the house.
 
Inside, participants can pick out clothing and bathroom kits, toiletries and backpacks. They also receive a small bag of groceries to take with them.
 
Larry Vinkemulder, pastor of The Lord’s Gift House, says he’s the only pastor in town who prays for his church to be empty. He finds that many who have been served and helped by The Lord’s Gift House come back as volunteers once they are in a more stable life situation, while some just move on when they are no longer in need.
 
The house is stocked completely through donations, and Vinkemulder says that they have always had enough provisions to serve those who come. Provisions, donations and funds are generously supplied through private donations and the giving of the members of First Baptist Church of Pompano.
 
The people that visit the worship service and come through the house vary. People who have lost their jobs, prostitutes, drug addicts, the indigent and the mentally ill are all welcome. Vinkemulder estimates that 12-15 new people a week benefit from The Lord’s Gift House.
The number of people who have been saved as a result of their visit to The Lord’s Gift House is too high to tally after so many years of ministry, but Vinkemulder estimates that three to four people a week accept Jesus as their Savior and Lord.
 
Northeast Florida
 
While some ministries go to the people and some wait for the people to come to them, the members of North Main Street Baptist Church in Jacksonville have taken a different approach when it comes to helping the homeless population.
 
For years, Pastor Nick Phoenix and members of his congregation prepared meals and invited the homeless and hungry in their neighborhood to come in and be fed.
 
However, they noticed that very few actually came. What they discovered was that some people didn’t feel comfortable coming into the church building. To eliminate this obstacle, they purchased a warehouse four blocks away from their church and started serving meals there once a week. They christened it His Warehouse. It was an immediate success.
 
But Phoenix and his church want to do more than just feed people.  They are taking a more holistic approach.
 
“You don’t make a connection to the homeless by just giving them a basket at Thanksgiving,” Phoenix explains. “A handout is an act of love, but I believe churches can do more if you put a plan together.”
 
Like Simmons and the Lawrences, Phoenix is interested in really talking to the people he meets and listening to their stories. “Evangelism is listening to their stories and seeing how Jesus fits in,” Phoenix explains.
 
Between 5:30-8 p.m. every Friday night, people can get a free meal, play some board games, listen to music and, for some, a shower and a fresh change of clothes will be available. While they’re there, they will also receive a kit containing a Bible, shampoo, socks and other toiletries and necessities.
 
It’s a time for people to enjoy a meal and socialize in a safe, family-style atmosphere. Approximately 50 percent of the people who attend on any given Friday night are homeless. For some, this may be their only meal of the day or the week.
 
One way Phoenix has chosen to support His Warehouse is a side business the church runs called Go Inflatables. While proceeds from the business go to His Warehouse, Phoenix also employs the people he meets at the warehouse on Fridays in an effort to help them get back on their feet. He employs up to 15 people as contract workers in this way.
 
Panhandle
 
Started in 2011, Nothing Lost Outreach began when Point Baptist Church and First Baptist Church of Ensley in Pensacola teamed up to do something about the growing number of homeless people in northern Escambia County.
 
Every Sunday, Nothing Lost Outreach vans and buses head into the community, stopping at the places where the homeless tend to congregate to pick them up. From there they go back to FBC Ensley for the afternoon. 
 
When guests arrive, there is a time for fellowship and prayer.  Volunteers and staff circulate throughout the room, offering to listen and pray with the people who have come, providing the relational touch that is so valuable in a ministry like this.
 
At 3:30, guests participate in a worship service provided by volunteers from various area churches and organizations. After worship, a hot meal is provided. Different churches also volunteer to provide this meal, which is then served by youths who volunteer. Guests are served at their tables.
 
People who come to the church are also able to take advantage of other services, such as haircuts, clothing donations and showers. They are sent off at the end of the afternoon with various toiletry and hygiene items.
 
Nothing Lost Outreach partners with another area homeless ministry called Waterfront Rescue. It functions more as a rehabilitation facility, offering an 18-month program that not only gets people off the streets, but offers Christ-centered counseling that gives them the tools to stay off the streets.
 
If someone who shows up on a Sunday afternoon is an addict and is truly interested in giving up drugs and changing their lives, NLO will take them to Waterfront Rescue.
 
While mostly men attend Sunday afternoons at NLO, they do also see a fair number of women and children. For some people, the services and fellowship at Nothing Lost Outreach essentially become their home church.
 
There are Southern Baptist churches all over the state of Florida doing their part to lessen the suffering of the homeless.
 
This list is by no means exhaustive. The thread that seems to bind them all together is the driving force of sincere love. Listening to people’s fears, showing them you care about who they are, and offering hope are the lifelines that are making a difference to homeless people throughout the state.
 
Mike Carroll, interim Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families said last month in a letter to Gov. Rick Scott that “there is no doubt that effective public-private collaboration at state and local levels, combined with strong community participation, is key to solving homelessness.”
 
Southern Baptists are answering the call with compassion. Phoenix sums it up well: “You have to touch people’s lives. You can’t just have good preaching on Sunday.”
 

MINISTRIES AT A GLANCE
 
Children of God Worship Center
People served: Between 50-90, depending on the week
Volunteers participating: At least six, but as many as 15
Money spent: $150 a week
Contact: Lem Simmons, 352-328-1627, lemcsimmons@gmail.com
 
Here’s Hope
People served: 300 so far this year
Volunteers participating: 25 regularly
Money spent: $3,000 a year
Contact: Vicki Lawrence, 352-373-5030, vickil@sfrba.org
 
Buses n’ Backpacks
People served: 500 a week
Volunteers participating: 82 with more for special events
Money spent: $80,000 a year
Contact: Tandy Hammond, 352-243-1155, tandy@servingsouthlake.org
 
Pack A Sack 4 Kids
People served: 100 kids a week
Volunteers participating: 30 a week
Money spent: $15,600 a year
Contact: Joe Marek, 813-600-8132, jsphmrk@gmail.com
 
The Lord’s Gift House
People served: 6,000 a year
Volunteers participating: 18-20 a week
Money spent: $50,000-60,000 a year
Contact: Larry Vinkemulder, 954-745-6121, larry@fbcpompano.org
 
His Warehouse
People served: 75-200 each Friday night
Volunteers participating: Up to 12 weekly
Money spent: $40,000-$50,000 per year
Contact: Diana Culver, 904-742-6432
 
Nothing Lost Outreach
People served: Average of 70 each week
Volunteers participating: 20-25
Money spent: $20,000 a year
Contact: Joel Dunbar, 618-560-9097, jfdunbar@gmail.com

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