In our previous edition an article regarding hunger and homelessness in Collier County was discussed. St. Matthew’s House, located at 2001 Airport Road S. in Naples was the focus of the article as it is one of the only places in Collier County that is helping to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. This follow-up article includes a discussion with CEO/President, Vann Ellison, regarding homelessness as well as ideas for the individual to get involved in the process of ending hunger and homelessness in Collier County.
Vann Ellison has been the CEO/President of St. Matthew’s House for nearly seven years now. Throughout his years at the shelter he has seen the homeless population change in more ways than one. According to Mr. Ellison, the main reason for homelessness is that these people are alone. During difficult times we reach towards family and friends to help, however, not everyone is lucky enough to have that type of support system. Therefore, the goal of St. Matthew’s is to provide a safe place as well as the missing support system many homeless face. As the facility becomes that source of support, it is able to encourage all those who stay to continue on a path towards self-reliance. During a tour of the facility, Vann pointed out a cross standing in the courtyard in the middle of the U-shaped building. This cross is surrounded by a beautiful prayer garden planted by those living at St. Matthew’s House. The cross bears the name of every man and woman who spent time at St. Matthew’s House and has since passed on. This is another way in which St. Matthew’s makes sure the people they help are never forgotten.
Another issue Mr. Ellison discussed is the changing demographics of the homeless. “Ten years ago all homeless shelters were mostly based around men…. Now we see more and more facilities are focusing on families. A study done last year shows that the average age of a homeless person in the United States is nine years old due to the economic crisis in our country,” Ellison explains. In 2004, Ellison’s first year at St. Matthew’s House, there were only two children at the facility. They now help care for 47 children. St. Matthew’s House is making adjustments to accompany these changes. The Wolfe Apartments, a 46-unit structure, houses families and individuals during their recovery process. Ninety-percent of those who enter the Wolfe Apartments are able to reenter regular living and rarely need assistance again.
Regardless of the many reasons for homelessness, the truly bigger picture is how to end the problem. Through St.Matthew’s many functions, the average individual can help in many ways. When asked what the greatest need for the facility is, Mr. Ellison explained that they are always in need of food and money donations. The facility receives zero funding from local or state government. This means that all food and monetary gifts are given by the public. Food donations may be dropped at their facility on Airport Road in Naples. A monetary donation of only $10 can provide 25 hot meals. St. Matthew’s is classified as a 501c3 organization, meaning all donations are tax deductible.
When a person enters St. Matthew’s, the most important goal is to get them back to work. Unfortunately, travel becomes an issue as the people in shelter often have no transportation. A bicycle donation was put in place to provide a more efficient way to search for a job. These bicycles are not free, however, as most things at the facility are not. Many of the bikes need to be fixed before use and each person who receives one signs an agreement that they will pay back the cost to fix the bicycle once they are steadily employed. As Mr. Ellison explains, “we try to teach responsibility…. In general, when things are earned they are more valued. We want the people here to value what they are receiving as opposed to just giving them things.”
St. Matthew’s House also runs three thrift stores throughout Collier County. These stores are run on volunteer effort. The thrift stores take donations of many kinds and also have a free pick-up service for larger items. To donate to the Naples store one may call 239-774-3315 to receive a free pick-up. Phone numbers to their other locations in Bonita Springs and Immokalee may be found at St. Matthew’s website, www.stmatthewshouse.org. These thrift stores are a very important asset to St. Matthew’s House. As Mr. Ellison explains, “because we generate half of our own budget each year all of our administrative salaries are paid for by our thrift stores, catering operations and other social enterprises so that every dollar you give goes directly to our services to the poor.” These operations also help to pay for other overhead such as electric and phone bills.
This series of articles still does not cover all the services and volunteer opportunities that St. Matthew’s House has to offer. To find out more, visit their website or give them a call at 239-774-0500. It doesn’t take much to truly make a difference in one’s community. There is no better gift during the holiday season than the gift of changing a life for the better.