Helping the Homeless

Life took a bad turn for Lena Harley’s family when they moved from Fort Lauderdale to Inverness, Fla., because South Florida was too expensive and rural Citrus County seemed like a better place to raise their son.

But Lena couldn’t find a job. Home Depot transferred her husband to a part-time job at a store in an adjacent county, but the Harleys couldn’t afford to rent an apartment in Inverness, so they moved in with her brother. Under the standard definition of family homelessness, families who are forced by economic circumstances to move in with relatives are considered homeless.

The Harleys went on food stamps, and Lena had to volunteer at least 20 hours a week to keep their benefits. While volunteering in another REALTOR®’s office, Lena met Inverness REALTOR® Cheryl Lambert, who was motivated to help the homeless by a 2014 statewide Florida REALTORS® campaign to get involved in helping the homeless. Lambert hired Harley to work in her office and urged her to buy a house.

“I was like there’s no way I can afford a house,” Harley said. “Cheryl said, ‘You can.’ I said, ‘No, there’s no way I can. My credit score’s bad.’”

Lambert got Harley into a credit counseling program, found an affordable two-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot home and helped the Harleys get a mortgage they could afford.

“We were paying the mortgage, but my husband grew ill,” Harley said. “He was diagnosed with multiple melanoma, which is cancer of the bone marrow. He lost the function of his kidneys, so he couldn’t go back to work. He’s still fighting it. We’re waiting for a bone marrow transplant.”

Facing daunting medical bills, Harley was ready to give up on homeownership.

“I told Cheryl, ‘If I have to I’ll lose my house. I don’t care. My husband’s life is more important,’” Harley said. “She said, ‘No, no, you don’t have to lose your house.’ I said, ‘How am I going to pay the medical bills? You planning on a raise for me?’”

Lambert told Harley about Hardest Hit, a federal program that provides mortgage relief to low-income homeowners dealing with catastrophic illness. Lambert helped the Harleys apply for the program, and they were accepted. Hardest Hit is paying the Harley’s mortgage in full for 18 months while they struggle to pay for her husband’s treatment.

“The Good Lord brought me here for a reason,” Harley said. “No words can explain to you how grateful I am to Cheryl. She’s amazing.”

Lambert, who has focused in her career on affordable housing, said the 2014 Florida REALTORS® Helping the Homeless: REALTORS® Believe campaign raised her awareness of homelessness in Florida and motivated her to get involved in helping people like the Harleys.

The REALTORS® Believe campaign was a priority of Sherri Meadows, an Ocala REALTOR® who was president of Florida REALTORS® in 2014. Florida REALTORS® presidents traditionally pick a charity for the association to support during their terms. “I said I don’t want to just raise money for a charity, ‘Hardest Hit” is a federal program that provides mortgage relief to low-income homeowners dealing with catastrophic illness. I want to raise awareness,” Meadows said. “Maybe there’s an opportunity to reduce homelessness in our state.”

Meadows said her concern for the homeless was motivated by a favorite Mark Twain quote and a chance meeting with a homeless man who told her he wanted to be somebody. The Twain quote was “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

“My why I found out back in 2007,” Meadows said. “I was president of the Florida chapter of the Women’s Council of REALTORS® and one particular day I was speaking in Tampa. After that meeting a gentleman walked up to me and said ‘I want you to know that your theme, imagining, believing and achieving, impacted me. I feel like you’ve given me hope.’”

“’I’m a homeless person, and I live in a shelter and everyday I go back to my shelter after working my waiter job here, and they’ve picked through my things, they push me around, they tell me who do I think I am? I’m not going to be anything, I’m just a nobody, but today you’ve given me hope. And I believe that someday I will be somebody.”

Meadows has not seen the homeless waiter since that day in Tampa, but, “He is somebody. He helped to create the motivation for a 150,000-member organization to travel around the state to try to make a difference in our communities.”

She focused her campaign on family homelessness, which frequently means single mothers and children escaping from abusive relationships. Meadows said chronic homelessness resulting from drug or alcohol abuse or mental illness is a much more difficult issue, and she felt Florida REALTORS® could have more impact sooner by helping homeless families.

She launched the Helping the Homeless: REALTORS® Believe campaign with a bus tour to all 13 Florida REALTORS® districts, encouraging members of the associations to get involved in efforts to assist the homeless and eventually end homelessness.

Florida REALTORS® toured the districts in a bus painted with the slogan “REALTORS BELIEVE …

WE BELIEVE in our communities, that housing matters and that WE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE!”

Meadows said her team logged more than 3,000 miles on the bus tour and that hundreds of REALTORS® attended many of the district meetings. Those REALTORS® were urged to get involved in local programs providing services and assistance in finding decent, affordable housing to the family homeless.

The REALTORS® visited shelters in Tampa, West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, met homeless persons and learned firsthand about the issues affecting them, Meadows said.

While the bus tour was taking place, Florida REALTORS® advocates lobbied during the 2014 session of the Florida Legislature for increased funding for homelessness programs.

The Legislature passed $4 million in grants supporting homelessness programs around the state.

Joining with other homeless advocates during the 2016 legislative session, Florida REALTORS® helped pass $5.2 million in grants to local organizations working with the homeless. Jaimie Ross, president and CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition, said that appropriation was highly important to homeless advocates as it provided for the first time rent subsidies for homeless persons moving into their own apartments.

“When you consider REALTORS® are about selling homes, their commitment to the issue of homelessness is even more powerful as it’s not in their direct pecuniary interest,” Ross said.

Throughout her year as president of Florida REALTORS®, Meadows took advantage of every opportunity to raise awareness of homelessness. At the association’s annual convention, she had members pack meals that were delivered to thousands of homeless persons.

“One packed meal can feed a family of four, and I believe we packed 50,000 meals within two hours,” she said. “The very next day those meals were being delivered around Central Florida so that was another success.”

Delivering meals to homeless children is an ongoing project of a number of local REALTORS® associations working in partnerships with homelessness coalitions. Barbara Barnes, association executive of the Lakeland Association of REALTORS®, said members of her organization work with a nonprofit called kidsPACK to deliver meals to homeless school children.

Every Friday, Barnes said, kidsPACK delivers plain black backpacks to homeless children attending the Polk County schools. Lakeland REALTORS® help stuff those backpacks.

Barnes said the backpacks contain enough food to feed each family over the weekend. The kids receive free breakfasts and lunches on school days. Last year, kidsPACK reported, the program provided meals to 1,345 homeless children attending 66 Polk County schools.

Under Meadows leadership, Florida REALTORS® sponsored the Housing Matters Summit on Family Homelessness at an Orlando hotel in September, 2014.

The summit attracted 250 REALTORS®, business leaders and homeless advocates from Florida and many other places outside the state.

“The summit was successful,” Meadows said. “It was sold out. We invited first responders, care givers, shelters, civic organizations, bankers. Everybody that you can think of came to that summit, so that the left hand knew what the right hand was doing in the state of Florida.”

“We created a model for other associations, be it local or state associations around the country that have done similar initiatives,” she said. “We believe that our best practices or ideas were able to be spread around the country from the example that we set.”

Summit participants discussed more than 100 ways to provide services to the homeless. The association published a book titled “HELPING the HOMELESS 100 IDEAS TO BELIEVE IN” and distributed it to summit participants.

Ideas highlighted in the book are as basic as offering homeless persons a granola bar or a bottle of water instead of money. Cash donations may be well-meant, Meadows said, but that money may be spent on alcohol or drugs, which perpetuates the cycle of homelessness.

Meadows said helping the homeless has become a way of life for many Florida REALTORS®. One of them is Merritt Island REALTOR® Louise McLean who was named the association’s 2014 Humanitarian of the Year for leading an effort to raise more than $120,000 for homelessness organizations in Brevard County.

McLean formed the Brevard’s Children in Need Committee after she saw a 60 Minutes program about homeless children in the county. The Brevard Schools Foundation reported 1,600 homeless children in county in 2014.

“The money helps homeless children with needs, from a new coat or shoes to a band instrument — anything to keep them included and involved in school,” McLean said.

In Miami, real estate professionals helped raise funds, acquire a building and renovate it to house the Lotus House, a shelter for homeless women and children. Members of Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW) Miami played a key role and are continuing to support the foundation that developed the Lotus House and is developing additional homeless shelters in Miami.

The book that summarized Summit discussions recommends 28 ways that REALTORS® can use their expertise in housing to help homeless advocates provide housing, including raising funds to acquire and renovate buildings as shelters and affordable apartments.

“Don’t overthink the initial step,” the book said. “As one REALTOR® says, ‘Just find the housing and the funding and get the homeless off the street.”

Lambert has set up a foundation named Housing Ownership Matters for Everyone (HOME), Inc. to provide affordable housing to low-income working people and help the homeless find decent, affordable housing. Lambert has given Lena Harley the opportunity to pay it forward by appointing her to HOME’s board of directors.

Lambert said part of her foundation’s mission is “to assist Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing to provide temporary housing and services to prevent individuals and families from becoming homeless and help those who are experiencing homelessness to be quickly re-housed and stabilized.”

Meadows is now vice president for government affairs for the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® and plans to develop a national policy on homelessness for the NAR. “We’re kind of silent on that,” she said.

“I’m excited to continue the work I’ve done at the national level,” Meadows said. “I continue to believe that not just homeownership but housing matters at all income levels.”

John Van Gieson is a freelance writer based in Tallahassee, Fla. He owns and runs Van Gieson Media Relations, Inc.

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