How does one properly address and fully understand the complex issue of homelessness and hunger in America? We tend to think of the homeless as lazy, addiction-laden, crazy and a burden on society. However, this portrayal of homelessness is becoming less and less of the majority. We have seen how the recent economic crisis that America is facing has affected businesses and the job market. We are now starting to see its reach into the homeless sector, especially in Collier County.
A recent study by the Collier County Hunger and Homeless Coalition shows that employment and financial issues are the leading cause of homelessness, at 55 percent, in the county. Home foreclosure is steadily gaining speed as a reason for homelessness as well. As unemployment, financial and home issues collide, it is easy to see which population will be most affected: families. According to the same study, the number of homeless children in Collier County jumped from 411 in 2009 to 641 in 2010. The average population of homeless adults has also seen a steady increase. As there seems to be little change in our economic situation, how are these men, women and children who find themselves homeless or hungry ever going to get back on their feet?
In Collier County, the answer to this question is St. Matthew’s House. This non-for-profit organization was formed in the early eighties by a bible study who cooked food and brought it to the homeless living in the woods. They now serve over 200,000 meals per year. St. Matthew’s House is named after the Bible verse in Matthew, Chapter 25: 35-36, 40, which states, “For I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in… Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” The mission is clear: help those in need. While St. Matthew’s House is a religious-affiliated organization, the doors are open to anyone who may need them and religion is never force-fed.
St. Matthew’s House receives no money from the government yet the amount of services they provide is outstanding. The main facilityat St. Matthew’s House has many uses. Its main function is housing. The facility holds 20 single beds for women, 70 single beds for men and six family suites. Anyone who stays in these beds has made a pledge to stay sober and is given a breathalyzer daily. They are each given a case plan and a case manager that will help them to find a job and help them develop life skills. Each case plan is suited for the individual. Plans vary based on health, age, mental status and drug or alcohol addiction. St. Matthew’s House has formed partnerships with the local public school system, the David Lawrence Center and different medical facilities. These partnerships have given those at St. Matthew’s House the opportunities to attend vocational school, receive addiction counseling, mental health care and medical care.
The main facility also holds their kitchen and food bank. The kitchen provides an average of 200 meals per day. Most of these meals are served at the neighboring Old Firehouse Ministry. This is their version of a soup kitchen and also holds sixteen beds for single men. The food bank at the main facility is where most food donations are delivered. Here, they are sorted and stored by date and are then bagged for families to take home. Between this food bank and one other located in Bonita Springs they feed 250 families per week.
Each night in the main facility, cots and mattresses are placed on the floor in the main dining area to accompany the overflow of homeless. At the moment there is a wait list of about 75 people looking for a regular bed and a chance to get back on their feet. Until there is room, these temporary beds will continue to be provided nightly.
The services detailed above are really only a small glimpse of all that St. Matthew’s House has to offer to those who are in need. Look for a follow-up to this article in our next publication where there will be an interview with St. Matthew’s CEO/President, Vann Ellison. Opportunities for individuals who would like to become more involved in the effort to end hunger and homelessness will also be addressed. For even more information, visit their website at www.stmatthewshouse.org.