Most of us haven’t been disaster victims, but we know it could happen at any time. As fast as you can snap your fingers, a medical emergency or unexpected job loss can drain a bank account. If family or friends can’t lend a hand, it can present a previously unimaginable dilemma: no place to live.
I’ve indeed been reasonably lucky. I’ve never missed a meal in my life and a comfy roof always has covered my head. But sometimes while waiting for a traffic light to turn green I glimpse a homeless person nearby and wonder how he or she ended up that way. My first guess is a common misconception – a lazy bum looking for a handout to buy another beer. But in reality, the tables can turn in a nanosecond between riding high in the saddle and being bucked off, particularly when an impatient landlord declares, “Hit the road, Jack.”
It’s a fascination with that fateful line between prosperity and poverty that took me to the eight-acre campus of the Homeless Emergency Project in Clearwater. HEP has been helping people in need of emergency accommodations since it was founded in 1986 by Otis and Barb Green, but it’s evolved into so much more.
“We provide a healing environment,” said Ashley Chango, HEP’s director of marketing. “Whatever their circumstances, we have many programs to help them.”
With 47 employees and thousands of volunteers helping during the year, HEP provides temporary housing for singles, families and veterans through an annual budget of $6.5 million.
Programs include a kitchen serving three meals per day, a dental clinic, thrift store, barber shop and community garden as well as skill training and job placement, counseling and legal assistance, medical care, recreational activities and even after-school tutoring and summer camps for children. Ninety-two percent of the children at HEP end up on the honor roll in school.
“Our mission is to give people in need a transition into becoming independent again and regaining a normal life,” Chango said. “The success rate for getting residents into independent housing after being here is 88 percent.”
In 2013, HEP housed 1,398 individuals, 76 families, 127 children and 508 veterans. The kitchen served more than 95,000 meals and the value of the agency’s onsite medical care totaled nearly $2 million – avoiding numerous ER visits and 911 calls. But it’s the intangibles that really tug at the heart strings.
I chatted with James Lenig, a New Jersey native who spent 10 years in the US Navy. A resident at HEP since March, he had nothing but praise for the services he’s received.
“They took me in when I was living on zero means,” Lenig said, who’s now learning new job skills. “This is how you break the cycle of homelessness.”
Here’s the timeline of a homeless person arriving at HEP:
• One to 12 hours – shelter, food and clothing provided;
• 12-24 hours – referred to the dental clinic;
• 24-72 hours – an onsite medical and mental health assessment;
• Within three days – an assigned case manager devises a customized treatment plan;
• Within 30 days – access to all HEP programs;
• After 30 days – weekly meetings with the case manager to set progression goals;
• Exit – self-sufficiency and obtaining independent housing.
“Everybody who comes here has a unique story and set of challenges,” said Libby Stone, HEP’s chief operating officer. “It’s not enough just to provide food and shelter. We go deeper to learn the hidden reasons behind each person’s difficulties so we can truly help them resume a normal life.”
HEP’s good works haven’t gone unnoticed. For four years in a row, an independent company that rates charities gave HEP its highest four-star assessment. HEP is also rated one of the top three charities in the Tampa Bay area.
The proverbial fork in the road for the homeless can lead in opposite directions. One is a humiliating, life-sapping path than often brings depression, suicide, rejection and a future dimmed by despair. The other is a program like the Homeless Emergency Project that provides hope, acceptance and a blueprint for redemption.
But even a helping hand like HEP needs helping hands. To learn more about how to offer your support, contact them at 1120 North Betty Lane, Clearwater, FL 33755, (727) 442-9041, www.ethep.org.