In 2018, Ms. Paul founded the Nature Coast Community Services Foundation, Inc. It is a 501 c-3 non-profit organization whose motto is “Helping Hands Over Homelessness.” The foundation started because although there are many local organizations and churches that serve the homeless by providing food, clothing and sometimes shelter, there are a lot of people whose needs are not being met.
Our mission is not just to feed and clothe the homeless. Our goal is to help them get out of the situation they are in. Our goal is to provide them jobs, find housing for them, and get them back on their feet.”
As of the end of August, 97 people in Hernando County are out of the woods, living in their cars and “surfing” and getting jobs and housing. Although this is a huge achievement, hundreds of people are still living in horrific conditions… and the need is only getting worse.
“Last year, we started seeing families for the first time,” says Ms. Paul.
One family, in particular, is a husband and wife who before Covid-19 were a thriving business. The Department of Children and Families (DCF) took their two children away due to the alleged abuse, of which they were found innocent, and placed them in foster care. The children desperately wanted to return with their parents. However, the couple could not get their children back because they did not have a roof over their heads. A room in Mrs. Paul’s late husband’s home became available and the couple moved in. DCF still does not allow parents to have their children because “there is not 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 helping the plight of local residents who are experiencing homelessness.
An even more surprising story is the case of 44-year-old David. It was a series of events that led him to homelessness. David was working as an assistant manager in a restaurant and was renting a hotel room. However, after paying for his room and paying child support, he only had $25 left each week. Then he developed his pink eye and scratched his cornea and couldn’t work.
He couldn’t afford his hotel room and ended up on the street for a month. He then lived with his ex-wife for a few weeks, but when she found out that his condition was severe and he would not be able to return to work immediately, she asked him to leave. He stayed at his brother’s house for a while, but his sister-in-law was not satisfied with this arrangement, so David went out into the street again. His only option was to put a cover and cloth on the floor.
His condition worsened to the point that he was having difficulty seeing with his healthy eye. During this time, he would get very little food from people handing out once a week, but would go three or four days without eating. Then Elaine found it.
Fortunately, Elaine had a friend who had an extra bedroom and David was able to move in with that friend. He didn’t want to be taken advantage of. He intended to sell his blood plasma to pay his rent. However, he was disqualified due to his leg ligament being replaced. His eye condition was getting worse and would eventually lead to him going blind if not taken care of. This is where serendipity took hold – the state of being in the right place at the right time.
Medicaid has approved the transplant, but it will only cover the surgery. It so happened that Mrs. Paul’s deceased husband had donated his organs and she had two corneas, so in August, David had a corneal transplant. His recovery was slow but steady. When he fully recovers, he plans to work as a cook in a restaurant.
David calls Mrs. Paul “Wonderwoman” for everything she’s done for him and countless other people. “It goes above and beyond for everyone. If everyone gives a tenth of what you give, more people will be helped.”
Perhaps the most satisfying part of what Miss Paul does is just ‘being there for people, and listening to them when they cry and say ‘everyone hates me’. I fail, “Get them out of the horrible place where they were in their heads.”
Fortunately, she is not alone in her work. It has a core group of a few volunteers, plus people who help out from time to time, providing food and basic supplies to the homeless.
One of the challenges they face is to some extent the result of their success in raising awareness and obtaining donations of necessary items. “I don’t have a problem with groups; I have a distribution problem. I need drivers. We meet twice a week and put things in our cars and take them out to the homeless. If one or two people don’t show up, we are limited in what we can eat, but food is a priority.”
With the donated items plentiful, Mrs. Paul’s living room and garage is filled with sleeping bags, clothes, and boxes filled with non-perishable food, bug spray, and other essentials for someone living down the street.
Their current goal is to find a place to move the operation so that she and some other volunteers don’t have to store everything in living rooms and garages. Right now, they have two storage units that cost $200 per month and those units are filled to capacity.
Another part of their money is spent paying people to get their identity papers, such as birth certificates, Social Security cards, and driver’s licenses. These papers are often lost because the person is moving from one place to another or may not have the money to renew his driver’s license.
She has received an influx of help from local businesses and organizations. For example, the High Point Lions Club donates prescription glasses. Joseph’s House and St. Vincent DePaul Society.
Even Hernando County Animal Services provides dog food. More than half of the people you help have dogs. One might wonder, if they can’t feed, clothe and house them, why would they have a dog to take care of? The answer is that for many of these people, the dog is the only creature that does not judge them and gives them unconditional love.
As David comments, “When you are homeless, you are not only fighting the life that is resisting you, you are fighting the negativity of others towards the people in that situation.”
“These homeless are just like me and you. They are good people. Most people are there because life has given them something they cannot recover from,” says Ms. Poole.
There are as many success stories as David’s. A veteran woman with PTSD who lived in the woods with her service dog is now renting a room in Mrs. Paul’s late husband’s home.
Justin, who was once homeless, is now a counselor at Jericho Road Services. He wants to go to college and major in counseling.
And the list goes on.
Ultimately, the way out of homelessness is to get homes. This is a “no-brainer,” but it’s a hard-to-achieve goal for the majority of homeless people.
“We need small homes here that people can live in, but Hernando County doesn’t favorably lean on this idea,” says Ms. Poole.
What many people don’t realize is that homelessness is everyone’s problem. Many people who live on the paycheck to paycheck without savings can become homeless due to illness, the economy, and other factors. We found out when the Covid 19 pandemic hit and businesses were forced to close. Many of us can find ourselves in this situation. “There were it not for the grace of God…”
Another reason why it is so important to solve this problem is that the cost of displacement outweighs the cost of sustenance for the displaced population. If a homeless person must be treated in a hospital, the taxpayers or paying hospital clients make up the difference. Some of the homeless end up in prison, which is also costly for taxpayers.
The topic of these articles is local heroes. A hero is not just someone who rushes into a burning building to save the life of a person or a soldier who is defending our freedom. A hero can be someone who puts in an incredible effort and sacrifices their time and money to help the less fortunate. A hero can also be someone who faces and overcomes enormous obstacles in life. “Miss Elaine,” David, Justin, and dozens of others in our community who are making a difference in their lives and the lives of others exemplify this kind of heroism.
For more information about the Nature Coast Community Services Foundation, to volunteer or donate funds, call 352-600-9555.
In fact, if you want to enjoy an evening of entertainment and help this noble cause, the Foundation will collect donations on October 7. The event will feature Tony Belmont with his Comedy Time Tunnel and comedian Fran Capo. There will also be a silent art auction. For tickets, call 352-600-9555.