WINTER GARDEN, Fla. – The numbers from the latest homeless Point-In-Time census are in and they confirm the homeless population in Central Florida has grown.
The Homeless Services Network, partner agencies and volunteers counted 2,258 people as homeless during this year’s three-day census. That’s more than 100 people counted than in 2022 in the three-county area, which covers Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties.
This week’s Getting Results Award winner told News 6 that he understands the challenges of getting people off the streets, and because of that, he’s put a new spin on homeless outreach.
Scott Billue is getting people back into society one paycheck at a time.
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As the morning sun cast a shadow on the pavement outside Matthew’s Hope in Winter Garden, about a dozen people tried to escape the heat, and waited their turn for service under tents in the parking lot.
The faith-based homeless outreach, located in a small industrial park just outside downtown Winter Garden, is a lifeline for homeless men and women in west Orange County.
Scott Billue, Matthew’s Hope founder, greeted people as they got off one of the two mini buses the nonprofit operates.
“Think of it as Lynx except for the homeless,” said Billue, explaining that the buses pick people up at locations throughout the west side.
A pile of clothes is piled just steps away.
“They’re dropping off their laundry,” said Billue, pointing to the shoulder-high mound of plastic and duffel bags.
“This is kind of a light day for us, we typically serve anywhere between 150 and 200 people on any given day,” he said.
Matthew’s Hope provides everything from a hot meal to medical care out of its 11,000-square foot warehouse.
“Our first initiative is to move people into a life of independence and self-sustainability,” Billue said. “But in the meantime hide them in plain sight by making sure they get showers, haircuts, fresh laundry and their basic needs taken care of.”
Billue said he won’t turn anyone with immediate needs away, but his program is designed to end the cycle of dependence.
“What we’re trying to do is give a foundation to work from. It’s easy enough to give people some things they need: clothing, food, what have you. And it’s important. They need that. The reality of it is, is that if we disappeared tomorrow, most of these people would probably still get fed,” Billue said.
To move them toward a life of independence, they fill their toolbox with whatever resources they need.
“Sometimes that is paying down old debt. Sometimes that is paying off fines or child support. Sometimes that’s finishing school,” he said.
To do that, Matthew’s Hope has set up what amounts to its own economy. When people are checked in, their needs and situation is assessed. A computerized system helps volunteers pull items such as toiletries, clothes and canned goods from small storerooms behind the scenes.
“Think of it like Amazon,” Billue said. “He became a millionaire and I run this.”
The next step in that “economy” is the ability for people to work at the nonprofit to earn points toward items and services beyond the basics. The system also helps people restore their credit and establish a stability that will look better on future resumes.
“Points are backed by real dollars,” Billue said. “Anybody can work at Matthew’s Hope for things they need. I’ve had people get their teeth replaced. I’ve even had people buy cars. But they’re going to work for that.”
Staff also assesses vocational and life skills and establishes individualized programs for reintegration.
“A lot of what we do here is we have classes that cover everything from cooking, to how to do a checkbook, how to understand finance. That is not being taught in our schools,” Billue said. “You’d be shocked how many of our homeless out here, have upper-level education, have degrees. They didn’t get the basics. Nobody taught the basics. Oh, they can build a gosh darn rocket for me. They just can’t do the budget for it. And unfortunately, you have to be able to do both.”
Dennis Dewan moved here in January from Oregon. The disabled tile and mason craftsman does low impact jobs around the property to help pay for his housing. We caught up with him as he folded towels for the showers. Dewan lives in one of the apartment units managed by Matthew’s Hope.
“I’m disabled but I’m trying to get back to work and Matthew’s Hope is helping me do that. They’re getting me to all my doctors. I have a couple of MRIs coming up and hopefully my doctors will tell me I can go back to work.”
Billue used his own life story for inspiration. He recalled being homeless as a child.
“I recognized what took place,” he said. “I had a little brother, 11 years younger than I, was that was born with three holes in his heart. My family lost everything. We didn’t make a mistake. His father took off and suddenly I have a single mom with three kids and one that’s spending his life in the hospital. And I remember people offering clothing and food. That was all well and good but no one was telling my mom, ‘Here’s how you get out of this.’ Nobody was walking alongside her.”
Now Matthew’s Hope is filling that need.
“We can’t keep doing things the way we’re doing them and expect a different result,” said Billue, adding that he’s seen people find enough success to be able to regularly donate money back to the nonprofit. “I think that if we were to take what we do here and take it anywhere in the country, it would work.”
Billue is this week’s Getting Results Award winner, but he said his satisfaction comes from seeing people turn their lives around.
“I’m not looking for anybody to pat me on the back. I’m not looking for a plaque, you know, another award. Those are nice, but the reality of it is, I’d like to believe that when I leave this planet one day, I’ll do it knowing that I made a difference in somebody’s life,” he said.
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