Building hope in South Florida one family at a time

The following is the first in a series spotlighting Hope South Florida – a unique collaboration of city officials, social agencies and the faith community with a single purpose – to end family homelessness in Broward County.

“Eighteen months ago, Stephan Tchividjian of the Christian Community Foundation of South Florida encouraged a group of his pastor friends to start meeting. Soon they agreed to unify around the gospel and to address the critical need of homelessness. They each appointed a staff member to sit on a team with representatives of The Shepherd’s Way and brainstorm how to create solutions that would mimic the heart of Jesus,” states Matt Lomenick, who serves as the Pastor of Life Operations at Rio Vista Church and was the representative chosen by Senior Pastor Tom Hendrikse.

Small Church, Big Actions

“We’re the smallest church in the bunch but because our members are so good at seeing needs and seeking out ways to meet them in the long run, a lot of people think that we are larger than we are. This is a church that acts out what we’re taught,” he adds. Matt’s previous experience as field engineer of  a construction company has come in handy as Rio Vista has jumped into this project with both feet. “We have a lot of construction guys attending here who either own companies or have high positions in construction companies including a drywall company, an air conditioning company and even a shell company. The Lord has brought these people together with a strong belief in the value of people becoming self-sustainable. We are all reliant on the Lord but we are committed to helping others live lives that are productive.”

Matt continues, “Our philosophy here is the same as in a third world country. If you just take people and put them in a house with nothing more, all they will be is homeless with a roof. They will still lack the loving community that forms a safety net for the rest of us. You can build an artificial net through social services but you have to be a part of the net for someone else to have dignity and self-respect. Our goal is to reconstruct a loving community where these families can rebuild their lives.”

The Vision Hits Home

After the vision weekend where the Hope South Florida video aired and each of the eight congregations around the community were introduced to the vision of Hope South Florida, Matt had a couple of guys from the congregation contact him. “There was a person from our church who said that he wanted to take on the renovation of the Hope Central House.”

The three bedroom house is conveniently located just across the street from the Hope South Florida One-stop location. Purchased when it was distressed, plans called for it to be renovated to serve three families a night as crisis housing at night and then during the day to serve as a place where families can receive additional counseling and support. “The house needed to be completely renovated.” Matt continues, “The kitchen and wiring needed to be ripped out, jalousie windows replaced and air conditioning installed. Every weekend, the 2 1 1 hotline has eighteen to twenty families who are homeless or sleeping in their cars. Each bedroom could be fitted with a twin or double bed and then bunk beds to care for a single mom and three kids or a homeless couple with kids. This will be a cool, bright, clean place to stay.”

“We want this house to feel like a home. That’s one of the reasons we like houses rather than apartment buildings. So many of these families are from a broken paradigm- a cycle of poverty and chaos. This house can provide them the order, beauty and calm that so many of us remember as a part of our homes as children. They are only in the bedrooms from 5 p.m. until 7 a.m. and then they can avail themselves of the resources like counseling, job placement, free child care and help filing for unemployment,” Matt explains. “Many times their life tools are broken and their decisions shortsighted because they are just trying to survive. This will allow the cycle to stop.”

Investments Not Depressed

The families are not the only ones who are benefiting from Rio Vista’s involvement in Hope South Florida. Matt explains, “Several of the investors in our church have mentioned that they are thinking of repurposing houses or land that they originally bought to redeem the now depressed properties through use for the gospel.” Matt continues, “This project has demystified hurting people. We have so many people who wanted to do the right thing but didn’t know how to help. All of a sudden the project is a real family and we realize that we’re just a couple of bad decisions from being in a similar position. Jesus was the champion of the poor. However you think is the right way to address the problem, whether it’s providing everything or just coaching them through it, we must respond. We cannot continue to ignore the hurt and suffering. It is in the very culture of our church to help people in need.”

A Change in Attitude

Matt explains, “A couple of days after the launch a woman called me and said that she had been approached by a woman with a stroller who asked her for money. She explained to me that 72 hours earlier I would have just walked away. The woman asked what she should do. She didn’t want to just give the woman money and then walk away.” Matt points to her shift in perspective as indicative of the change Hope South Florida is looking for within the faith community.

Follow the Leader

BJ Behnken is Director of Creative Housing at Hope South Florida and it’s her job to match individuals, small groups and churches with the projects that are going to best utilize their talents and skills. “We have eleven units at one motel and another four unit motel along with a three unit condo. There’s a new house in Hollywood with five rooms that families could use and a duplex in addition to the Rio Hope House. Like that house, they all need to be rehabbed and renovated.” Some of the projects require mops and paint brushes rather than drywall and AC units. “We have an interesting opportunity with ten hotel rooms at the El Palacio. All the rooms are in need of being refurbished. Some have minor construction needs but most just need to be cleaned, painted and furnished. Maybe a family or a small group takes one each while a church might take responsibility of fixing up five of the rooms.” BJ continues, “This is a real way to put shoe leather to your Christianity.”

Cleanliness is Next to…

BJ continues, “We’re always in need of a carpet cleaner. Maybe someone owns a company or a carpet cleaner and can donate their time or do the work at a discount for us. There’s a project or job for everyone.” Finally BJ issues a challenge, “We want every church to be a part of this. To ask themselves ‘What are the possibilities?’ and ‘How can we make a difference?’ Rio Vista has set an example for the rest of the faith community. Now it’s time for us to jump in and be involved.”

For more information on how you can be a part of Hope South Florida, log onto HopeSouthFlorida.org or call 954-566-2311.

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