The summer of 2019 was – by far – the most difficult season of ministry for Impact! that we’ve ever experienced. While we have been able to help get almost two dozen homeless families off the streets for good this year, there were so many others that we were not able to assist. A multitude of factors played into this, but left the Impact! team rethinking some of our strategies, partnerships, funding practices and evaluation system for determining who we could help. In the process God also laid a very specific calling on Denise (my wife) and my hearts about launching a new initiative to help a group of folks that are normally overlooked. To say that it has been an eye-opening and ministry-changing season would be an understatement. Below I’ll share five difficult things we learned this summer:
1. The homeless are getting less receptive and accessible.
Eight years ago when we started Impact! Ministries – first as a church and then more recently as a para-church ministry – the homeless were more receptive to outside people. Even those dealing with addiction and mental health issues were more friendly and accepting of people trying to help. Over the past three years we have seen a huge change in this attitude with many of our homeless friends becoming less and less receptive to outside people visiting the homeless camps. They are also coming out of the camps less often to take refuge or receive help from local shelters. Over the summer it became more prevalent than ever before. For the first time in our ministry there were certain homeless camps that the Impact! team no longer felt safe in visiting. Threats were made against us warning us not to return. Many declined even the smallest gestures of kindness and very few welcomed us back when we did return. Even from homeless families – where children were involved – there was real lack of gratitude toward any assistance. Many felt that they were entitled to the help since they had children. Almost daily we dealt with homeless mothers and fathers showing extreme levels of anger if assistance was not provided quickly and in abundance. In the end we lost volunteers and came to the realization that we needed a new way to evaluate folks before determining if we could help them.
2. We do not have a sustainable way to finance the ministry.
Every homeless or poverty relief organization in America is dealing with a lack of financial resources. Charitable giving donations are dropping across the board – especially donations to Christina organizations. Impact! Ministries has not been immune to this problem. In fact –at this very moment our operating finances all almost depleted. This summer has seen more homeless families in need than what resources would allow. On any given week, Impact! was receiving an average of 8-10 new referrals for homeless families in Polk County. These were not families staying in a hotel or folks we had already begun to work with. These were homeless families NEW to the area living in cars, tents, abandoned homes and even sleeping on park benches each night. Yes, you read that right – homeless parents and children sleeping on park benches. By early July there were no more temporary and permanent housing solutions for these families. Our only option was to put them in hotel rooms – sometimes 6-7 people to a room – just to get them off the street. As a result, finances were quickly depleted and we were forced into making some very hard decisions. In most cases we spent our last few ministry dollars on hotel rooms for the homeless to the detriment of operating expenses. As a result, there was not enough money to cover ministry needs AND for basic business expenses like storage rental (for furniture, clothing and non-perishable donations), postage, liability insurance and basic housing/medical insurance allowances for full-time staff. As we were trying to make ends meet and provide for the homeless, a large portion of financial donations we received were designated by the donor for specific families featured on our social media accounts – families which Impact! had already helped. It meant that we couldn’t use the funding anywhere else or with any other homeless family. It quickly became evident that we did not have a funding model that would financially sustain the work we were doing with the homeless and the operating expenses that comes with running a ministry. Next week I will be posting a video outlining the new ways in which we will be funding Impact! Ministries – we learned them from the amazing folks at Charity Water. By the way, if you’d like to financially support Impact! Ministries, you can click here to give securely online. You can also use our new text-to-give feature by sending a text message to 863-900-8554 and then follow the instructions in the reply. We could sure use the help right now!
3. The government is getting less compassionate and cooperative.
I think one of the reasons for the hostility I wrote about in the section above is that federal, state, county and city government officials are becoming less compassionate when it comes to dealing with the homeless. As a result, they are also becoming less cooperative when it comes to partnering with homeless relief ministries, organizations or agencies. As homeless camps and communities overrun cities across America, the homeless crisis has become front-and-center for the upcoming elections. Politicians and government officials are becoming increasingly more hostile towards the homeless – and are more determined than ever to eradicate them from their areas no – matter what it takes. As a result, there are stricter laws being enacted and enforced against the homeless. There are more law enforcement raids on homeless camps. In some cases, basic human rights are being ignored “for the good of the tax-payers”. We saw this in Polk County almost weekly this summer. Cities and counties all across the United States are demolishing affordable housing options with no plans of replacement. Finally, government officials have begun to ignore or limit the advice that they receive from the leaders of homeless ministries, agencies and organizations. In essence, we are no longer fighting poverty. We have begun fighting the poor – and the poor are beginning to fight back.
In essence, we are no longer fighting poverty. We have begun fighting the poor – and the poor are beginning to fight back.– Rev. Chris Elrod
4. Too many women are leaving prison and going straight into homelessness.
Over the years Impact! Ministries has come to realize that many of the homeless women that we work with have spent time behind bars. Often they leave prison with little more than the clothes on their backs and $100 on a prison debit card. Job opportunities are limited and a proper support system of family or friends in almost non-existent. As a result, a large portion of these women find themselves back to committing crimes or living on the streets within months of being released. This summer almost all of the homeless women that Impact! worked with had recently been incarcerated and had no place to go when they were released. Statistics show that over 95% of the incarcerated women in America will be released – a majority serving a sentence of less than five years. Most of these are being held for non-violent crimes, but are not receiving any kind of educational help or training to prepare the women to be on their own. In essence, it is a set up for failure – almost guaranteeing that women being released from prison will surely end up homeless. Unfortunately there are very few organizations, ministries or agencies established for helping these women succeed after prison. For the most part they shuffle from one homeless shelter to another with little hope for a better life. It is for this reason that Denise and I have begun to sense God’s calling to create an initiative for providing aftercare to women being released from prison. Years ago – while I was a platform speaker for Prison Fellowship – I had a dream of a ministry called Women Without The Walls. Over the next few weeks you will begin to hear more about that dream – and how my wife and I are working to make it a reality.
5. We just can’t help everyone – even when there are children involved.
A few moths ago I posted a photo of a homeless mother and her daughter to my social media accounts. It received quite a bit of attention and response from folks wanting to help. Though we had taken the mother through our normal evaluation process at Impact!, some things fell through the cracks. Not because we were lax, but because of some basic flaws in the process itself. As the weeks pressed on we began to have concerns about the mother’s background and found multiple inconsistencies with her story. In the end we found out that she was in a toxic and controlling relationship with a man that was constantly in trouble with the law. Every dime she was making at her job would be used to buy things for him (who would not get a job) – to the detriment of her and her daughter. Things took a much different turn when we discovered that there were members of her family in the area that would give she and her daughter a place to live – but the man was not welcomed (rightly so). She just couldn’t let go of the relationship. The mother chose for her and her daughter to be homeless in order to keep a man in her life. In the end, the mother failed to meet the requirements for Impact! Ministries – and other local agencies – to help her. Fortunately the family members took her daughter in to live with them and she was doing well the last time we checked.
Unfortunately this story happens all too often – and occurred many times this summer with the families Impact! worked with. Time and again we witnessed homeless parents refusing to do the simplest of things to meet the requirements for help. Quite a few had serious addiction issues and could never pass a drug test. Many had opportunities for employment, but did not want to work – they only wanted a handout. Still others kept making poor decisions that left them and their children in dangerous situations. On more than one occasion we found out that the story the parent would tell us about how the family became homeless was a complete fabrication. If we heard the statement, “It’s not a real drug, it’s only pot” once, we heard it dozens of times. The last time I checked marijuana is still a felony charge in the State of Florida – and will definitely keep you from getting a job or financial assistance around here. In the end, we could help only about 3 out of every 10 homeless families that we evaluated. We spent almost as much time calling the Department of Children & Families as we did coordinating permanent housing options. We have now completely revamped our evaluation process and are more clear with homeless parents about what is expected from them ij order to receive assistance.
I realize that this is not a very positive post with happy stories. However, it is the reality of the work we do at Impact! Ministries. Our goal is always to see people come to know Jesus, but also for them to become eventually self-sufficient without the help of financial assistance. Unfortunately, we don’t see that goal achieved very often. Still – each day – we head back out into the woods, parking lots, abandoned homes and local parks searching for someone – or some family – that needs love, hope and belonging. We greatly appreciate those that volunteer with us, those that financially support our mission and those that pray daily for the work God has called Impact! to. We would ask that you continue your support as we work hard to impact lives one heart at a time.