God’s Table Homeless Outreach

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Community Cooperative Effort

Following the January 20 murder of Fort Myers Beach Public Library Director Dr. Leroy Hommerding at the hands of a homeless man, Fort Myers Beach residents are either condemning, praising or misunderstanding the efforts of God’s Table, the outreach program for the homeless operated out of the Chapel By The Sea Presbyterian Church in the 2500 block of Estero Boulevard. Dr. Stephen Adkison, Chapel Pastor, and Office Administrator Denise Armstrong discussed God’s Table, its role in the Fort Myers Beach community and various misconceptions about the organization.

“CBTS hosts God’s Table for the Community Cooperative Soup Kitchen out of Fort Myers, that strives to alleviate hunger and homelessness in Southwest Florida,” explained Pastor Steve. “Community Cooperative has a staff person here on campus and she does a great job but is often overwhelmed. We provide support and some oversight and funding; Community Cooperative budgets $55,000 annually and we chip in roughly $23,000 and our parishioners, beach restaurants and institutions like Publix Supermarket contribute donations and food. Anything left over goes to the Community Cooperative to use at other locations, so nothing goes to waste. Community Cooperative administers this program and several others throughout the area from their Downtown Fort Myers headquarters, so their reach is much larger than just the beach. God’s Table services those in need from Fort Myers Beach north to San Carlos Boulevard and south to Bonita Springs. The Ministerial Association of Fort Myers Beach helped to organize God’s Table in 2002, to address the overwhelming need of the homeless in the beach region.”

More Than Just Food

“In the last three years, God’s Table has a new staff,” added Denise. “While God’s Table previously served between 50 to 60 homeless people, recently those numbers are down to somewhere around 20 to 25 people. These numbers increase during the season and lower in the summer. We absolutely do not bus people here from off-island, though occasionally the St. Vincent de Paul Society issues bus vouchers to help them to get to the Veteran’s Administration or to return home to family members, if that is their desire. In addition to food, they receive assistance with showering and laundry, low income housing and utility help, telephone service and job and school placement if they have kids, so it is more than just food.”

“We help people who do and do not have housing,” explained Pastor Steve. “Chapel by the Sea is a church and we are called by Jesus. As I recently said to Town Council, Jesus and his disciples were homeless, as far as we know, the last three years of his life and people assisted him, so He calls us to do the same for others and that is what we do. Scripture says the poor will always be with us so they will not go away, meaning we will be here, as that is our calling. As Jesus said, we care for the least amongst us. We have all kinds of people in our congregation, from the very wealthy to those without a house, and we minister to each physically, emotionally and spiritually.”

Pastor Steve emphasized that “Community Cooperative does a background check on all God’s Tables participants, and they must have an identification card of some type to receive service, but there are no other requirements. We keep close records throughout the process and are even currently putting together a database.” “Law enforcement reviews our list of participants,” said Denise, “looking for any red flags.”

The Elephant In The Room

“A main concern of mine,” continued Pastor Steve, “is if God’s Table went away, theoretically you could have an increase in crime and panhandling, as a person who is hungry may do things they normally would not do if they have not eaten for a day or two, so in a way our service is a benefit to the community and not a detriment to the beach. Someone recently referred to the homeless as the ‘feral cats’ of the beach but these are human beings, who are someone’s child and father and mother and brother, and we see them as human beings and give them the respect and dignity we all need to receive. This all points to the elephant in the room – the lack of mental health programs in Florida and the nation, as this is not just a Fort Myers Beach problem or Community Cooperative problem or Chapel By The Sea problem but a national problem, so we all have to work together to address this problem, not only here but on a larger scale, so it does not help making any one group or institution a scapegoat.”

Homeless people are down on their luck and they need our help, offered the Pastor, “as they have not always been homeless, as something happened to them to change their way of life, and these types of circumstances could happen to any one of us and we could be the homeless, who are hungry and need assistance and clothing and our laundry washed and to take a shower, so maybe for just a few minutes, you feel like a human being again with dignity.”

Pastor Steve and Denise pointed out that God’s Table has many success stories. “Many have improved their situation in life, and we are proud we played a part in that,” said Denise. “We can tell many good stories,” added Pastor Steve, “though some take longer to accomplish than others or than we might want. We’ve placed many people in jobs, right here on Fort Myers Beach, with their kids in the Beach Elementary School, and they are now contributing members of our community, who draw wages and pay taxes. We do everything in our power to help them not to be homeless!”

A Tale of Two Men

Pastor Steve stressed that “we here at Chapel condemn any type of violence and we too mourn with the Fort Myers Beach and Library communities over the death of Dr. Hommerding, who was a good friend to so many of us. I had the opportunity to know him and he was kind and a gentleman and a very intelligent man who loved the Library and the whole community, and I believe he realized that when you work with the poor, there will be certain problems. He allowed the homeless to use the Library, with its restrooms and air conditioning and books and Internet, as there are few places better to improve one’s self than a Library.”

Conversely, both Pastor Steve and Denise know the accused murderer. “He attended services here,” related the Pastor, “and I personally had no issues with him, nor ever felt threatened by him, and he was helpful around here on several occasions. I like to think I am pretty good at recognizing issues, as everyone has some kind of issue, but I never saw anything that would indicate this type of behavior, nor did I know of him to threaten anyone. We encourage everyone that if they hear anything ominous, to speak up and tell someone. We work with the law enforcement community as they care about all of us and we overwhelmingly support them, but we saw no troubling signs on our part.”

“I was shocked when I learned it was him,” added Denise, “and now I am just mad! I would see him on many days and I knew his name and he knew mine and we would greet each other often, so it is a shock. He tended to be very quiet, as that is how he handled things, but like Pastor Steve, I never saw that aspect of his personality.”

Grace of God

Pastor Steve described the Ministerial Association of Fort Myers Beach. “We are now more active than we have been in a long time and we work very well together, as this is a solid group who cares about our community, although sadly not all the Fort Myers Beach clergy participate. We plan to continue to meet on a monthly basis, although with recent events, we are now getting together weekly and sometimes bi-weekly. We want nothing more than to have our beach residents and visitors feel safe and we are committed to offering physical, emotional and spiritual guidance and assistance to all who are in need, in any way. We won’t be able to solve any and all of these problems overnight, but this is a start.”

If you are in spiritual or physical need, Pastor Steve invites you to Chapel By The Sea. “We have services each Sunday through Easter at 8 & 10 a.m., then after that at 10 a.m. We are a very loving and caring church family.” “Life can throw a curve at any one of us, at any time,” said Denise. “None of us know what will come the next day. It may be a cliché but it is true: There But For The Grace of God Go I!”

 

By Gary Mooney
gary@fortmyersbeach.news