Article and Photography by SARAH NACHIN
Most people generally associate homelessness and poverty with large urban areas or the mountains of Appalachia, but Hernando County has a significant number of people who don't have a permanent roof over their heads or enough food to eat. However, there are a number of local churches, organizations, and individuals that are trying to do something about this social problem.
This article will focus on three churches that are working to serve this population. Future articles will deal with agencies, nonprofit organizations and other churches that are doing their part in this effort. The Hernando Sun has recently published articles on the efforts of Jericho Road Ministries and the Nature Coast Community Services Foundation.
Among the churches highlighted in this article, Redeemers Promise Ministry serves the largest number of hungry and has plans to expand their scope even more. When Pastor Perry Littlejohn started the food bank, located at 15120 County Line Road in Spring Hill, only two years ago, they served just twelve people. Now they are serving 1,200 people per month.
There is no income qualification. Anyone who shows up on the second and fourth Saturday of the month can pick up canned goods, meat, milk, bread, non-perishable items, and even fresh fruits and vegetables. The food pantry has been a lifeline to many people.
"The face of hunger is not what most people think of. They think it's someone that's homeless and living in the woods and has no means. This population only makes up a small portion of the people that we help," Pastor Littlejohn remarks.
"I had a man who came to me and was quite upset. He was just diagnosed with an illness and would not be able to work. With no paycheck and not knowing when it would come or if it would come again, he turned to us. We've been helping him through this rough spot."
Redeemers Promise Ministry has been so successful that they are rapidly outgrowing the 400 square feet that they lease in an office building. Their goal is to build a bigger facility. The 4.5-acre plot, donated by Bill Koenig of Nature Coast Wealth Management is waiting for them. They just need the $500,000 to prepare the land and build the facility. To spearhead this effort, they have come up with some creative fundraising events.
For example, three weeks ago they sponsored a dinner and performance by The Ladies for Liberty, a trio of women who sing patriotic songs and tunes from the 1940s-1960s. The event was well-attended and helped in their fundraising, but they have a long way to go.
"If 1,000 businesses and individuals would make a tax-deductible donation of $500 each the center can be built," Pastor Littlejohn concludes.
On the second and fourth Fridays of every month members of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church prepare and serve approximately eighty hot meals, including dessert, to the homeless and hungry in Brooksville. These folks are also provided with a hot shower at the church if they're homeless or don't have their own facilities. The volunteers bring the food to those who can't get to the church.
Andy and Jody Black started the ministry 3½ years ago. For the first 2½ years, the cost of the meals came out of their own pockets. Now they have a corps of volunteers. Each month a different family pays for and prepares the meal. Then the volunteers gather at the church to serve the meals and to prepare the take-out containers.
Andy drives the church van to pick up the people who want a meal and maybe a hot shower. Towards the end of the evening, they load the meals into the van and drive around the streets of Brooksville. They have several regular stops, such as at a trailer park and a couple of hotels. They also keep their eye out for people who are wandering the street or camped out and ask them if they would like a hot meal.
This ministry has literally been an answer to prayer for Kathy; her brother Sam; and her son, Skyler.
"We fell on hard times," Kathy comments. "We were evicted from our apartment back in 2017. We ended up staying at a hotel. This church [Faith Presbyterian] stepped in when we were kicked out of the hotel. They helped us get into the trailer we have now. They [the church members] are the most loving people I've ever seen in my entire life. They have embraced us."
Church members helped them furnish their home and take them grocery shopping, as well. Skyler even got a job as a part-time custodian at the church.
The evening I accompanied the group, they met one lady who was living in a trailer but had no stove. She welcomed the meal and thanked them repeatedly. Andy agreed to also have her picked up to attend church when she asked about it.
Another stop was at the home of an eighty-year-old man. The volunteers chatted with him and asked him how he was doing. At a motel, Andy greeted the residents by name and joked with them as volunteers handed out the meals.
What especially stood out in my mind is that each person served was treated with dignity and respect. They were not made to feel ashamed or as if they were accepting a handout.
Dayspring Presbyterian Church in Spring Hill also works to alleviate hunger in our area. Every Friday from 10 a.m. to noon, volunteers give out free bread and bakery goods that Panera Bread has donated. On the last Friday of each month, they also give out canned goods and non-perishable items. Sometimes they get fresh vegetables, such as kale from local farmers. They are not set up to stock perishable foods, such as meat and milk. In 2018, the church provided 3,122 people with food. So far this year, the number has been 336.
Ray Heddleson who started the food pantry in 1996 oversees a group of four or five regular volunteers ranging in age from ninety-three-year-old Doras Boutwell to sixteen-year-old Abby Jackson.
Besides, the baked goods from Panera and occasionally biscuits and yogurt from Farm Share, members of the congregation bring in food items. They also receive food that the postal workers collect during their May food drive.
Homelessness and hunger are complicated social problems. The cause and effects are numerous. However, each of these churches, in its own way is doing something to help. They are putting into practice Christ's teachings to love our fellow human beings and to "feed the hungry; shelter the homeless."