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Local Heroes Across All Walks of Life – Ellen Paul: In the Right Place at the Right Time

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Like many retirees, 74-year-old Ellen Paul enjoyed a variety of activities. She traveled extensively, was active in her church and pursued hobbies. Ms. Paul could have continued spending her “golden years” and her hard-earned money in these pursuits. Instead, for the past four years, she has devoted countless hours each week and a good bit of her own money helping the less fortunate – particularly the homeless.

In 2018, Ms. Paul founded Nature Coast Community Services Foundation, Inc. It’s a 501 c-3 non-profit organization whose motto is “A helping hand out of homelessness.” She began the foundation because, although there are several local organizations and churches that serve the homeless by providing food, clothing and sometimes shelter, there are so many people whose needs are not being met.

Ms. Paul states, “Our mission is not just to feed the homeless and clothe them. Our goal is to help them get out of the situation that they’re in. Our goal is to get them jobs, find them housing and get them back on their feet.”

As of the end of August, 97 people in Hernando County have gotten out of the woods, out of living in their cars and “couch-surfing” and have gotten jobs and housing. Although this is quite an accomplishment, there are still hundreds of people living in appalling conditions…and the need is getting worse.

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“Last year, for the first time we started seeing families,” Ms. Paul remarks.
One family, in particular, is a husband and wife who, before Covid-19, had a thriving business. The Department of Children and Families (DCF) took their two children away because of alleged abuse, of which they were proven innocent, and put them in foster care. The children desperately wanted to be back with their parents. However, the couple couldn’t get their children back because they didn’t have a roof over their heads. A room in Ms. Paul’s late husband’s house became available and the couple have moved in. DCF still won’t let the parents have their children because “there isn’t enough space for them,” so the next step is to find a place that can accommodate the children. This is just one way the foundation is assisting the plight of local people struggling with homelessness.

A more amazing story is the case of 44-year-old David. It was a string of events that led him to homelessness. David had a job as an assistant manager at a restaurant and was renting a room at a motel. However, after paying for his room and paying child support, he had just $25 left over each week. Then he developed “pink eye” and scratched his cornea and couldn’t work.

He couldn’t afford his motel room and ended up on the street for a month. Then he lived with his ex-wife for a few weeks, but when she found out his condition was severe and he wouldn’t be able to go back to work immediately, she asked him to leave. He stayed at his brother’s house for a while, but his sister-in-law wasn’t happy with the arrangement, so David was out on the street again. His only option was a blanket and tarp on the ground.

His condition worsened to the point where he was having difficulty seeing out of his good eye. During this time, he was getting a little food from people distributing it once a week, but he would go three or four days without eating. Then Ellen found him.

Fortunately, Ellen had a friend who had a spare bedroom and David was able to move in with this friend. He didn’t want to be a freeloader; he planned to sell his blood plasma to pay his rent. However, he was disqualified because he had a ligament replacement in his leg. His eye condition was getting worse and it would eventually cause him to go blind if not attended to. This is where serendipity took over – a case of being in the right place at the right time.

Medicaid approved a transplant, but would only cover the surgery. It just so happened that Ms. Paul’s deceased husband had donated his organs and she had two corneas, so in August, David had the cornea transplant. His recovery has been slow but steady. When he is fully-recovered, he plans to work as a cook in a restaurant.

David calls Ms. Paul “Superwoman” for all that she has done for him and countless other people. “She goes above and beyond for everybody. If everyone gave a tenth of what she gives, more people would be helped.”

Perhaps the most satisfying part of what Ms. Paul does is just “being there for the people, hearing them out when they’re sobbing and saying ‘Everybody hates me. I’m a failure,’ leading them out of the horrible place where they were in their own heads.”

Fortunately, she is not alone in her work. She has a core of a few volunteers, as well as people who help out from time to time, delivering food and essential supplies to the homeless.

One of their challenges is somewhat a result of their success in raising awareness and getting donations of necessary items. “I don’t have a collections problem; I have a distribution problem. I need drivers. Twice a week we get together and put stuff in our cars and take it out to the homeless. If one or two people don’t show up then we’re limited on what we can take, but food is a priority.”

Due to the abundance of donated items, Ms. Paul’s living room and garage are filled with sleeping bags, clothing, boxes full of non-perishable food, bug spray and other items essential for someone living on the street.

Their current goal is to find a place to move the operation so she and some of the other volunteers don’t have to store everything in their living rooms and garages. Right now they have two storage units that are costing them $200 per month and those are filled to capacity.

Another portion of their funds is spent paying for people to obtain their identifying papers, such as birth certificates, social security cards, and drivers’ licenses. Often these papers are lost because the person is moving from place to place or perhaps they don’t have the money to renew their driver’s license.
She has had an outpouring of help from local businesses and organizations. For example, the High Point Lions Club has donated eyeglasses. Joseph’s House and the St. Vincent DePaul Society has also assisted them.

Even Hernando County Animal Services provides dog food. More than half the people she helps has dogs. One may ask, if they can’t afford to feed, clothe and house themselves, why would they have a dog to care for? The answer is that for many of these folks a dog is the only creature who doesn’t judge them and who gives them unconditional love.

As David remarks, “When you’re homeless you’re not only fighting life kicking you in the a_ _, but you’re fighting the negativity of other people toward people in that situation.”

“These homeless people are just like you and me. They’re nice people. Most of the people are there because life handed them something that they couldn’t recover from,” Ms. Paul says.

There are many success stories like David’s. A woman veteran with PTSD who was living in the woods with her service dog is now renting a room in Ms. Paul’s late husband’s house.

Justin, who was homeless, is now a counselor at Jericho Road Ministries. He wants to go on to college and major in counseling.
And the list goes on.

Ultimately, the way to get out of homelessness is to have homes. That’s a “no-brainer,” but it’s a goal that’s difficult to achieve for the majority of homeless people.

“We need to have tiny houses out here that people can live in, but Hernando County is not favorably inclined to this idea,” Ms. Paul states.

What many people don’t realize is that homelessness is everyone’s problem. Many people who live paycheck to paycheck with no savings can become homeless due to illness, the economy and other factors. We found this out when the Covid 19 pandemic hit and businesses had to close. Many of us could find ourselves in this situation. “There but for the grace of God…”

Another reason that fixing this problem is important is that the cost of homelessness outweighs the cost of providing for the homeless population. If a homeless person has to be treated at the hospital, the taxpayers or the paying customers of the hospital make up the difference. Some of the homeless end up in jail, which is also costly to the taxpayers.

The topic of these articles is local heroes. A hero is not just someone who rushes into a burning building to save a person’s life or a military person who defends our freedom. A hero can be someone who goes to incredible lengths and sacrifices his or her time and money to help the less fortunate. A hero can also be someone who encounters enormous obstacles in life and triumphs over them. “Miss Ellen,” David, Justin and the dozens of others in our community who are making a difference in their own lives and the lives of others exemplify this type of heroism.
For more information on the Nature Coast Community Services Foundation, to volunteer or to donate funds call 352-600-9555.

In fact, if you want to enjoy an evening’s entertainment and help this worthy cause, the foundation is having a fundraiser on October 7th. The event will feature Tony Belmont with his Comedy Time Tunnel and Comedienne Fran Capo. There will also be a silent art auction. For tickets call 352-600-9555.

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