5 Difficult Things We Learned This Summer

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.

In conclusion

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.

5 Realities Of Poverty And Hurricanes

As Hurricane Dorian lumbers toward Florida, local residents are already starting to stock up on food, fuel, medical supplies and batteries. In a matter of days there will be no bread, water or milk on the grocery store shelves and long lines will form at the gas pumps. Some folks will choose to ride out the storm in their homes, while others will evacuate until the hurricane has passed. Even after the rain and winds have subsided, the clean up and rebuilding will take months. Occasional hurricanes are just one of the realities of living in Central Florida.

Two years ago, the Impact! Ministries‘ team learned another harsh reality of hurricanes whenHurricane Irma passed over the area – the impoverished are rarely able to properly prepare – or fully recover – from natural disasters. The lack of resources, disposable income and agencies willing to provide help make the effects of a hurricane even more severe for those living in systemic poverty. Many are at the mercy of landlords for getting damage fixed and most do not have transportation to agency centers that can offer financial assistance in the time of crisis. For weeks after Hurricane Irma the Impact! team spent our days patching roofs, clearing downed trees and taking people to area FEMA stations. We watched as the city ignored the most impoverished areas of Lakeland in order to restore power to the more affluent. For many folks in the area the hurricane was an inconvenience for a week. For the impoverished it was a life-changing event that many have not yet overcome.

When it comes to poverty and hurricanes, there are five realities to keep in mind:

1. Food Stamps are a limited resource.

SNAP – or what most people call “food stamps” – is a main source of financial income for impoverished families. With the assistance comes many rules and guidelines for the items SNAP can be used to purchase – which is basically non-prepared food only. This means that EBT cards cannot be used for batteries, flashlights, medical supplies, cleaning supplies or building materials. As a result, the items most needed for dealing with a hurricane are never acquired by the impoverished. Even after the storm has moved on, electricity is slow to be restored which means that EBT cards cannot be processed at grocery stores. While many restaurants are up and running within days of a major hurricane, SNAP guidelines will not allow the purchase of hot food or prepared meals (unless you are designated “homeless” by the U.S. Government). After Hurricane Irma the Impact! team discovered dozens of impoverished senior adults that had gone days without a meal. They found that their EBT cards would not work and they did not have the cash to afford local restaurant food.

2. No disposable income.

Those living in systemic poverty do not have a “rainy day fund” for cash purchases in the time of crisis. There is no way to set money aside or create a savings account for emergencies. Many live in fixed-income homes, going from paycheck-to-paycheck, wading through endless red tape to receive government assistance and experiencing the daily fear of food insecurity. When hurricanes are approaching, federal buildings are usually the first to close – which means those in the process of reapplying for SNAP (which must happen every 3 to 6 month) are delayed. Mail service is usually discontinued for several days which affects those waiting on government assistance checks. Because power is out EBT transfers for SNAP assistance doesn’t happen. As a result many living in poverty go without food, basic necessities or proper living conditions as a result of hurricanes and the lack of disposable income.

3. Lack of transportation.

When a hurricane strikes, public transportation is one of the first things to be shut down – and one of the last things to be restored. A large portion of those experiencing poverty have no vehicles and rely on public transportation each day to get around. When city buses are discontinued – even for a few days – it severely limits folks’ ability to get to supplies, shelter, friends or loved ones or to government assistance agencies after the storm. After Hurricane Irma cellular reception still existed – though spotty in some areas. However, the only way to power a dying cell phone battery was by using a car charger for an hour or so. Electricity was out in most places across the county. With no vehicle, the impoverished has no way of charging a cell phone or making a call in a time of emergency. One of the many services that Impact! Ministries provided after the storm was charging stations based out of our vehicles as we were taking folks to FEMA stations.

4. Agencies are slow to respond.

After a hurricane many city, county, state and federal agencies are slow to respond with clean up, supplies and assistance. In the hours following Hurricane Irma the Southern Baptist Convention’s SEND Relief trucks were the first to arrive with help and assistance. In contrast, it took almost a week for FEMA to get their people set up in the area and the Red Cross never showed. While slow disaster response is difficult on everyone that has made it through a weather-related crisis, it is especially tough for the impoverished. Basic necessities such as food, water, ice, fuel and medical supplies are hard to come by after a hurricane – but are even more difficult when you have no way to afford them. As stated above, when someone lives in systemic poverty there is no “rainy day” fund for such emergencies. Even when FEMA began taking applications for financial assistance after Irma, it was weeks to months before those finances were provided. In many cases the impoverished had already been evicted from their homes, were relying on friends, family or churches for basic food items or had left the city entirely in order to find better resources elsewhere.

5. Landlords take the money and run.

Shady landlords use hurricanes or other natural disasters to take advantage of the impoverished. Most landlords have more than enough insurance coverage to fix any wind damage caused by a hurricane. However, the deductible is based on 5% of the total value of the home. Shady landlords will apply for government assistance through FEMA and use that money to pay off the deductible on their insurance coverage. As this process is taking place the landlord will keep the tenants out of the home “until repairs can be made”. The tenants think they do not have to pay rent since they are not actually in the home. After 30-days this non-payment constitutes a breach of the rental contract and the landlord can thus rent the home to someone else – calling the repairs an “upgrade” and charging a higher rental rate than before the hurricane. The original renter has little legal recourse when this happens. After Hurricane Irma, Impact! Ministries came across several instances where shady landlords received FEMA money AND the insurance payout, but never made the repairs. As Hurricane Dorian continues heading toward Florida, many roofs in impoverished areas around Lakeland still have blue taros on them from Hurricane Irma damage.

Before We Begin, Five Things You Should Know About Me

To be honest, it took a very long time, significant amount of prayer and much outside counsel before I decided to start writing again. I love to write and share ideas that challenge the norm. However I knew that writing on subjects like poverty, gentrification, prison reform, the Church and leadership in the 21st Century – particularly in today’s political climate in America – could be somewhat controversial, cause me to lose friends or bring about the loss of supporters for Impact! Ministries. I may be an advocate for the impoverished and incarcerated , but I do not share the opinions for overcoming homelessness, crime, systemic poverty, inmate aftercare and gentrification that many people do these days. Mainly, my thoughts, beliefs and proposed solutions come from direct work and close proximity with the impoverished and incarcerated for the past 15+ years. In my experience, I have seen the overly compassionate, hand out with no parameters, non-confrontational, semi-socialist mode of “helping” the less fortunate actually do more harm than good. Coddling those with lifelong addictions, providing unlimited food or shelter to the chronically homeless, welfare payouts with no limits or requirements, the constant meddling by city planners to “combat” affordable housing and the Church’s failure to properly assume the role of caregiver that God instructed in the New Testament has left America in crisis.

Coddling those with lifelong addictions, providing unlimited food or shelter to the chronically homeless, welfare payouts with no limits or requirements, the constant meddling by city planners to “combat” affordable housing and the Church’s failure to properly assume the role of caregiver that God instructed in the New Testament has left America in crisis.

– Rev. Chris Elrod

In essence, our system for dealing with the impoverished and incarcerated in America is broke. I’m all for compassion, but sympathy without accountability brings no solutions. I’m all for helping others, but “hand outs” instead of “hand ups” leads to ongoing systemic poverty. I’m all for treating people with dignity, but where there is no honesty there is no realization of the need for change. As I’ve heard many of my pastor friends say, “It IS okay to be not okay. It is NOT okay to stay not okay!” Unfortunately, the way in which we handle the poverty-stricken, perpetually addicted and constantly incarcerated in America serves only to remind people that it is okay to be not okay – it is okay to stay not okay – don’t worrying about overcoming or bettering yourselves – we’ll provide your every need from now on. There is something just fundamentally – and Scripturally – wrong with that mentality and approach. It is NOT working and serves only to make the problem and crisis worse!

As I’ve heard many of my pastor friends say, “It IS okay to be not okay. It is NOT okay to stay not okay!”

– Rev. Chris Elrod

Before I began wiring on a regular basis I felt a need to explain myself a little, to set some ground rules for commenting and establish that there must be wholesale change in how America approaches poverty and prisons. With that in mind, here are five things you should know about me before we go any further

1. God’s Word is the ultimate authority in my life.
As a Christian and a pastor of the Southern Baptist Convention my ultimate authority in life is the Bible, I believe that it is God-inspired and without error. My belief in – and guidance from – holy Scripture supersedes any thoughts, ideas or opinions provided by other resources or people. At times, this puts me at odds with modern thinking and political correctness in America.

2. I’m a registered independent that has voted for both Democrat and Republican candidates.
I am a registered Independent. This is not a political move, it just allows me to sleep better at night knowing I’m not affiliated with a specific political party. However, in my professional life I do work with many politicians from both sides of the aisle. One day I may be meeting with a Republican senator’s social justice liaison in Washington, DC. The next day I may be sitting on a panel discussion about gentrification at a state Democrat Party gathering. In my assessments and solutions concerning the impoverished and the incarcerated in America I never let political agendas play into my thought process. Both parties are – at times – right and wrong about certain aspects concerning welfare, healthcare, addiction treatment and prison reform. One of my goals is to get both sides to come together to develop common sense solutions that actually work.

3. Every day I work with, live in and am friends with the impoverished.
Six years ago my wife and I felt a calling from God to leave the nice country home we lived in and move into a run-down rental house in a neighborhood plagued by poverty, drugs and gang activity. We spend quote a but of time with our neighbors each week. Soon after we moved, we also planted a church that was in the heart of the homeless community of Lakleand, Florida. Every night 30-40 homeless and addicted people would sleep in the sanctuary. We loved many of those folks through their addictions and remain friends with them to this day We regularly have the homeless stay in our house overnight, spend our own money to provide clothing for them, take them out for meal, get them to medical appointments and walk alongside them as they struggle with their demons. In essence, I am not standing on the sidelines writing about the impoverished – I am living it every day. Some of my best friends have no roof over their head and spend every day hustling for money to buy drugs or alcohol. I love every one of them and value our relationship!

4. I spend a lot of time in prison working with the incarcerated.
I spent six years working with Prison Fellowship as a platform guest with Operation Starting Line. As a result I was in hundreds of state and federal prisons nationwide each year working directly with the inmate population. I still go into several dozen prisons all over America each year to hang out with inmates, show them the love of Christ, teach them skills needed for re-entry and share the Gospel with them. I also work on their behalf with politicians and law enforcement agencies to bring about significant prison reform. Finally, the church I formerly pastored worked hard to provide aftercare to multiple ex-inmates and help them become re-established into society. As a result I speak at many churches across the United States each year about the Church’s role in prison reform.

5. I rarely make time to argue with people online.
Feel free to leave comments, but do not expect a reply from me in most cases. While I value and – at times – enjoy lively debate, I rarely have the time for it. Most of the debates I participate in are usually in-person with other advocates or experts dealing with the homeless, addiction and inmate crisis in America. They come with well-prepared thoughts and verifiable facts – and the goal of creating solutions. However I find that most “debates” online basically come down to name calling, rehashing last night’s cable news’ commentator or stating facts gleaned from a meme seen on Facebook. It is mainly personal opinions or political agendas rarely backed by experience or true education of the facts. I don’t mind it, I just don’t have the time to respond to it. Be passionate and lively – comment as much as you want – but be considerate and professional. If it gets personal or nasty (“Hey Elrod, you are a heartless thug that probably kicks kittens while cussing out your mama…”), I’ll delete it and block you from the site.

I find that most “debates” online basically come down to name calling, rehashing last night’s cable news’ commentator or stating facts gleaned from a meme seen on Facebook.

– Rev. Chris Elrod

Why take the time to share a little about myself? Mainly because I want the readers of this blog to understand that my ideas, solutions and proposals are not coming from some cable news anchor, a politician looking to score points with a quick soundbyte, a ultra-conservative evangelical pastor I heard at a leadership conference or an op-ed piece from a newspaper journalist. They come from experience – day after day experience – of working one-on-one with the impoverished and incarcerated. I certainly do not expect every one to agree with me – or even like the things I post – but I at least wanted people to know where I was coming from.

Thanks for taking the time to read this lengthy post. Not all of them will be this long or be so self-serving. Next week I’ll be back with post about the five reasons why welfare in America is not working and needs a complete overhaul.