Hope for the homeless

Tribune News Service • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:01 PM

Pastor Scott Billue — a high-speed, tough-love 50-year-old with a boy-band haircut — is founder of the 2-year-old Matthew's Hope program in Winter Garden. It is run with the support of 50 churches, hundreds of volunteers and scores of local businesses.

Sprawled behind the Church of Christ of West Orange, the operation began as a freeze shelter where those who lived in the woods could seek refuge from the nighttime cold. Now it's a full-time operation with 1,500 clients. At Matthew's Hope, the homeless can get groceries, clothing, medical and mental-health care and eye exams. They also can tend an organic garden and get help finding jobs.

Most unusual, though, is the ministry's detailed accountability system that allows those who do work there to earn "pastor bucks" that are exchanged for supplies. A sleeping bag, for instance, is 20 pastor bucks. A new bicycle with a lock and a bike light? Two hundred. Lunch with the pastor himself at a nice restaurant? Forty — and, buyers say, a bargain.

After all, Billue himself earns no salary.

"I spent nights crying and crying, and wondering why people turned their back on me," recalled Michael Russ, a 51-year-old Army veteran who worked for the city of Apopka, Fla., before losing his job, his wife and his home. "Then I found this place. I love coming here. I love working here. Pastor Scott really cares about you. They all care about you.

"And working gives you the feeling that you have a job again, you know? It makes you feel like somebody," Russ added.

Tina White, now 52 and living in Alabama with her husband, Drew, agrees. The couple came to Matthew's Hope soon after it opened, when they were staying in a half-finished home without functional plumbing or electricity. At the time, Drew, who had worked in construction, couldn't find odd jobs to keep them afloat.

"They paid for my husband to get his identification card, got him work boots and even gave him a bicycle so he could get back and forth to a job — because that was the only way he had," Tina said. "They don't just toss a few crumbs at you and say, 'See you next week.' They help you get off your behind and get your life back."

Today, Drew is working full-time in a grocery-store meat department, and Tina is studying to be a paralegal.

Joe Gick, a pilot for Southwest Airlines, will tell you it's more than the accountability system that makes Matthew's Hope work — although he's a big fan of accountability. When he learned about the ministry through his sons' Christian school, Foundation Academy, he decided to see what it was about for himself.

"Once I met Pastor Scott, my life was changed," said Gick, who spent a week's vacation volunteering there recently. "Everything he does is on the premises of the Gospel of Matthew, and even though I had read the Bible before, it made me really study those verses. It's not that Jesus said you should help the less fortunate, he said you must help."

Billue's own background is one reason the tough-love approach works. He knows what he's asking of people to quit drugs and work their way out of homelessness because he has done it.

Growing up in Indiana, the product of parents with nine divorces between them, he was molested more than once, including by one of his stepfathers. As a kid, he often lived on the streets to escape home life, and he started doing drugs at age 9. By the time the family had moved to Florida in 1975, Billue found himself bouncing from motel to motel with his dysfunctional mom.

But, by his 20s, he'd discovered his ticket to success in sales — and, with a six-figure income, his tastes upgraded to cocaine. He sold software, then sporting goods, then toilets. Fast-talking, likable and ambitious, he could sell pretty much anything.

"I thought of myself as a higher form of addict because I was functional," he said. "I could do an eight ball (3.5 grams) by myself and go for a couple of days nonstop, running seminars and making huge money. I knew people who died from doing a whole lot less."

Meeting his future wife at a softball game — where she first struck him out, then hit a line drive to his groin — saved him. She was the divorced mom of an infant daughter, and he knew enough about his own parenting role models to realize he didn't want to duplicate their example. He quit drugs cold turkey.

But it was a chance venture to a church sermon that left him feeling unexpectedly disoriented — and then invigorated. Soon it was all he could think about.

"God turned my life inside out," he said. "I was having conversations with him at night in my sleep. It got to the point where I couldn't help but listen."

A high school dropout, he worked his way through seminary school before being hired — and fired — by three churches for his habit of challenging congregants to walk the walk.

Six years ago, he started the nondenominational Next Community Church, which has about 100 members. He earns no salary there, either.

On a recent Tuesday, Billue's on the phone with a mom living in a rent-by-the-week efficiency with her children and complaining she needs groceries. Her food stamps for the month have run out, and she won't get more for another week.

"OK, we need to make an appointment for you to come in, and you need to bring your receipts so I can take a look at how you're spending your money," he tells her. "Because we can teach you budgeting and couponing so that you will be able to stretch the assistance you already get to cover an entire month."

His wife, Pam, feeds their own family this way and helps teach the couponing classes. It's a necessity when your husband works two full-time jobs yet has no income.

"Pam feels her job is to provide for our family so I can do what God has called me to do," Billue said. "She's an extraordinary woman."

Many call her husband extraordinary as well.

"He has a brilliant business mind," said Cathy Jackson, executive director of the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, the agency that secures grant funding for charities and helps coordinate their efforts. "If I won the lottery tomorrow, one of the first donations I'd make is to Matthew's Hope because I know their work is outstanding. His view is that they need to consider the whole person for the long term."

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, when the ministry is open for drop-in visits, the place is packed. Yet it operates with surprising precision. There's an intake system for first-timers, where they're queried about where and how they currently live, what they need immediately and what they need to get back to an independent life. They're also asked about drug and alcohol use.

If they want more than a hot meal, shower and laundry, Billue has expectations.

"If you have money for drugs, why am I feeding you or helping you get food stamps?" he explains. "But we won't cut someone off immediately, especially if they have children.

"If they fail, we say: 'We'll continue your benefits for 90 days, and in that time, you will attend a program — 90 meetings in 90 days, just like any other addiction program. We're going to drug-test you randomly during that time, and as long as you pass, we'll continue to get you your benefits. And at the end, you're going to sign a declaration that says we can drug-test you anytime we want.'"

That way, they are not only freed of addiction, they're also in a better position to be a responsible parent or employee.

It worked with Butch Preston. Billue found him living in the woods in 2010 after two divorces and alienation from virtually everyone he had once loved. When Billue learned Preston was a talented musician and master carpenter, the pastor brought him a used guitar and found him odd jobs.

But at night, Preston was still sleeping in the woods, still drinking and still using drugs.

"Scott kept telling me, 'Butch, I want to sit down with you sometime, and I want you to tell me your story.' And I'm like, 'Yeah, right.' But as I got to know his story, I could see we had more in common than I thought," Preston said.

"I'd been anti-religion all my life, and I didn't like it shoved down my throat. But Scott showed me how to have a personal relationship with God. It's just a very good guideline of how to be decent to people."

Billue also got him into a rehab program at the Orlando Union Rescue Mission, where he quit smoking, drinking and doing drugs all at once. When he got out, he found full-time work remodeling a church in Ocoee, and now he lives in a house and, after a decade's absence, has reunited with his sons.

"I wasn't used to people being nice to me," Preston said of his time at Matthew's Hope. "They changed my life. I have a job, I'm paying rent, I have a debit card.

"And I just bought Christmas presents for the first time in 10 years."

To learn more about volunteering or donating to Matthew's Hope, go to matthewshopeministries.org.

— By Kate Santich, Orlando Sentinel (MCT)

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