Despite increases in living costs, particularly housing, Florida continues to attract new residents. Some come with employment in hand, some with the promise of jobs, others with little more than hopes and dreams.
In consequence, exponential growth comes with exponential need. To that end, the Osceola county nonprofit Hope Partnership has seen unprecedented demand for emergency relief and outreach services along with extraordinary need for both housing development and funding.
Founder and CEO of Hope Partnership the Rev. Mary Downey cites how Osceola County is among the fastest growing counties in the state, taking a number 8 spot according to U.S. Census data between 2012 and 2022.
“We know about 30% will need social services,” Downey said. “But we’re seeing a shift and a change; we’ve helped thousands to receive care, then get back to work.”
How we work with Hope Partnership
Hope Partnership is a depositor in the Development Fund of the Florida United Methodist Foundation. It’s a fully liquid saving account that generates solid returns while enabling churches and related organizations to receive low-interest loans from the pool of funds.
Any individual or organization based in Florida can open an account. Currently, the fund is paying 3% interest per year.
Hope Partnership’s account with the foundation is anchored in funds donated by a church that was unable to use the investment in the spirit of the original gift.
Downey explains how choosing an institution to steward the funds was an easy choice.
“We wanted to keep the funds in the foundation,” Downey said. “Mark (Becker) was a great supporter of our work; I appreciated him and wanted to support the foundation. The endowment was specified for people experiencing homelessness, and we have worked to hold the integrity of the bequest.”
Downey sees the impact the organization is having on the local area.
“Osceola county has 400,000 residents,” Downey said, “and over ten years 100,000 have used our services. However, while homelessness is on the rise, we are not seeing more people on the streets. Can you imagine if we weren’t here? If we weren’t doing this work?”
Compassionate care for those experiencing homelessness
Downey, who helped launch Hope Partnership in 2013, believes the language we use to frame social challenges is crucial to shifting perceptions.
“Please do not say someone ‘is homeless,’” she said, “but use the term ‘experiencing homelessness.’ ‘Homeless’ does not define a human. Not ‘The Poor’; not ‘The Homeless’ it makes them ‘other’. These are real people who are experiencing homelessness.”
It’s a linguistic approach also embraced by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. By using positive and humanizing language around those experiencing homelessness, negative stereotypes deteriorate and there is a new opportunity to solve structural issues around homelessness.
While Hope Partnership was officially launched in 2013, the idea emerged from several years of prayer and imagination from various individuals and faith-based communities.
“I found my true call to ministry as a deacon while on staff at First UMC Kissimmee,” Downey said.
There, she served as director of programming and evangelism. Downey led worship as part of the church’s Sunday night dinner for people experiencing homelessness. This is where she developed a closer relationship with people in need and an awareness of the lack of help available to them.
“I have a huge heart for people in places of poverty and homelessness,” Downey said. “I quickly realized Osceola County did not have adequate resources for people in those spaces.”
She attended Asbury seminary, became an ordained deacon and worked with Community Presbyterian Church in Celebration to begin building the partnership that eventually opened Hope Center in 2013.
As a United Methodist Deacon in good standing, Downey’s official appointment is to First UMC Kissimmee.
“I have a lot of hope in redemption of disused spaces.”
— Rev. Mary Downey, CEO of Hope Partnership
“A year and a half ago we took an old building and rehabbed it into a service center for people experiencing homelessness,” she said. “I am passionate about taking vacant church property and converting it into ways to build the kingdom in the community, turning these spaces into housing, service centers, and distribution points for food.
The nonprofit is closing on a hotel on the U.S. Highway 192 corridor in Kissimmee, which it will then convert to studio apartments.
”Stewardizing (sic) what we already have — that’s a huge part of my call. I have a lot of hope in redemption of disused spaces.”
Downey describes the work of Hope Partnership as being both preventative and addressing the immediate need to alleviate homelessness.
“It’s both of those things,” Downey said. “Our role is to make sure everyone has a safe space to call home.”
“If we didn’t operate from a place of hope, the work would be impossible.”
— Rev. Mary Downey, CEO of Hope Partnership
Hope Partnership takes a holistic approach to alleviating homelessness in Osceola County. It’s programs include:
- Hope Cares is an outreach program focused on people who are currently experiencing homelessness. Hope Partnership provide showers, meals, ID services and access to health care.
- Hope Center gets involved once people are ready to be housed. The intiative embraces a case management strategy to help people to transition to housing and keep them housed.
- Hope Works focuses on helping clients to gain employment by connecting people to education, resources and labor-ready opportunities. The ID services offered through Hope Cares work symbiotically with Hope Works to help their clients get hired.
- Hope Builds is Hope Partnership’s program to create new affordable housing, such as its ongoing revisioning of a hotel property into studio apartments.
- Hope Properties focuses on property management of
- Hope Strategies addresses systemic and political issues that perpetuate homelessness and poverty through advocacy, education and coalition building.
Finessing the logistics and resources necessary to provide homes in the middle of a housing crisis leaves staff at Hope Partnership simultaneously both overwhelmed and motivated.
“If we didn’t operate from a place of hope, the work would be impossible,” Downey said.
“We’re super passionate about not duplicating any services in our community,” she said. On the level of individuals, and individual families, Hope’s case management strategy revolves around the questions: “What does it mean to be stable?” “What does it mean to sustain?” And “What does it mean to succeed?”
Looking ahead and Reimagined Spaces
With an annual budget currently around $2.3 million (projected $4.0 million when the hotel unit is converted to housing), Hope is poised to either continue exponential growth or to slow down and go backwards.
“We’d like to say we’re in the place where we’re figuring out who we want to be going forward,” Downey said.
“We are in the midst of planning the next five years; we’re poised to step into housing development in this community.
Hope Partnership is beginning to explore ways to replicate their model in other places across the Florida Conference with an emphasis on reimagining underutilized spaces. It’s an idea that could generate additional income for churches, while helping to meet the need.
“We can bring a vision of how to reimagine and care for the community.”
A personal connection to the cause
Asked what floats her boat about this work, Downey shared stories of real people, beginning with herself.
“As a person who experienced poverty and homelessness in my own life,” she said, “I’m proud of our work stopping the cycle of others having to experience that. I am able to be who I am today because people in my community and family invested in me in spite of difficult circumstances. Just knowing we have changed the lives of people in significant ways is really empowering to me.”
People like a former client who reached out to Hope Partnership to share how her daughter is graduating with a master’s in social work.
“I’ve never known how to say thank you,” the client said, “but this MSW should give you all you need to know.”
What can we do?
A recent report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shows how on any given day in 2022, about 582,500 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States. Forty percent of which are in unsheltered conditions, such as on the street.
With such a pervasive issue, it can be easy to lose hope.
But Downey recommends two ways individuals can get involved to alleviate homelessness.
“First of all,” Downey said, “it’s beneficial to recognize their own community has needs. … Support your own neighbors.”
Downey recommends individuals connect with organizations offering trauma-responsive and dignified care in their local community.
Another way is through education. Hope Partnership also offers a Homelessness 101 education series online through their website.
“Educate yourselves,” Downey suggests. “I get to hear these stories every day. These are people literally living their lives, and trying to live with the most dignity they can. That is incredibly important to remember.”
Derek Maul is a freelance writer based in Wake Forest, NC.