By Brett Hetherington*
Where would you turn if you were homeless, without any hope for improving your circumstance?
This is a question that many in our cities are forced to answer, and for those who are struggling in Lake County, Project Hope for the Homeless is one very real answer.
Judy Burr serves as the executive director for Project Hope for the Homeless, an East Ohio Conference Advance Special. She has been involved for most of the ministry’s 27-year history.
“We began as a group of people who saw a need in our community. Those who were homeless were not truly being served by government programs. It was a political hot potato, with one group passing the work off to another, and, at best, anything being put into place was a stopgap measure,” she said.
For the first five years, Project Hope for the Homeless provided seasonal housing when the weather would get cold. Without a building of its own, the ministry leaned into its ecumenical nature and rotated amongst area churches, beginning with Willoughby Hills United Methodist Church (Western Reserve District). As the ministry grew, it encountered issues beyond logistics.
“In 1999 we couldn’t spend more than two weeks at any one location because of zoning issues. But the benefit of needing to be so mobile is that we were able to raise awareness and involve a lot more volunteers,” Burr shared.
After receiving its first grant from the East Ohio Conference, Project Hope for the Homeless was able to move into a space of its own over Christmas 2000. The ministry still resides in the same building, but it now has double the original space thanks to multiple renovations over the years.
Today Project Hope for the Homeless hosts single guests, as well as entire families.
“We were seeing an increasing need for families seeking help, and we were able to add a new family wing onto our facility that meets their varied needs,” Burr said before adding that the family wing is accessed separately from the rest of the building and children are able to be bussed to and from school.
“Our goal is to help remove barriers that have prevented people from working on what it is that has caused them to be homeless. We offer accountability. We are not here just to get people off the street,” said Project Home for the Homeless Communications Coordinator John Hutchison. “We want to help them get back on their feet and making wise choices in their lives.”
When a new guest arrives, they spend time with a staff member working to discover the roots of their homelessness – be it addiction, job loss, illness – and help set goals that the guest will accomplish to get themselves back on track. Training on a wide range of topics and skills is provided, from basic communication to job skills to proper child discipline techniques.
This difference in philosophy can lead to some struggles. Alcohol and drugs are not permitted onsite. Smoking has to be done outside of the building and weapons are confiscated. Not everyone is ready for this step. Project Hope for the Homeless wants to help people transition well back into the world outside its walls, and though there are some who are not ready there are many success stories.
Project Hope for the Homeless views successful transitioning as finding living arrangements, steady work, and assistance for whatever caused homelessness in the first place.
“When I started, our successful transitioning rate was around 50%,” Burr said. “Last year our rate was 90%, and 94% for our families, most within 30 days! We even offer after care for those who struggle with their transitioning. Our recidivism rate is below 10%.”
On Valentine’s Day, Project Hope for the Homeless will celebrate its 27th anniversary. Over those years, the ministry has served over 7,500 guests, witnessed a multitude of life-changing experiences, and has seen first-hand issues with which those who find themselves homeless in Lake County struggle.
Burr shared that, “Affordable housing is hard to find. You have to put your name into a lottery to get on the waiting list for a shot at subsidized housing.”
There is also a lack of public transportation available to areas where there are factories and other larger places of employment. The local hospital has moved recently, limiting access to health care after 5:00 p.m. unless a resident has their own transportation. Add to that the ongoing struggles with a culture that has raised guests with a lack of basic social skills, communication skills, and has exposed them to regular trauma and it is no easy task to transition well. This makes Project Hope for the Homeless all the more special.
“We have so many different people volunteering here, coming from all different denominations, backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses. We have former shelter guests and local pastors working side by side. Everything we do has to be out of love. If we do it out of power or any other reason it gets us into trouble, and it is not worth it. We do not force guests to take part in Bible studies. For a lot of people, the Spiritual component is the final piece of the puzzle. They have gone through the rest of the process numerous times, but the relationship with Jesus is what cements everything for them,” Burr said.
“This is a mission field,” she continued. “It is a great opportunity for people, whatever way they plug in, to fulfill the Gospel.”
Learn more about Project Hope for the Homeless and all East Ohio Conference Advance Specials on the East Ohio Conference website at https://www.eocumc.com/finance/advance-special.html.
If you have a story of how God is using your local church to transform the community, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The East Ohio Conference Communications team wants to tell your story.
*Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.