The good Sarasotan

National | Good Samaritans in Florida use their own means to help homeless men in their town

Issue: "Abolition of C.S. Lewis?," June 16, 2001

"The nerve!" huffed Carolyn Cooley, hustling her two young daughters past the unkempt man who lay surrounded by beer cans, sprawled against a palm tree on church property. A battered hat shielded the man's eyes, but holes in the soles of his shoes seemed to watch church-goers' reactions. Mrs. Cooley's indignation dissolved into tears when, within the hour, she learned the man's identity. The "bum" was actually her pastor, Neville E. Gritt. He'd stationed himself outside the church that Sunday morning to awaken his congregation to needs he'd seen while driving through Sarasota, Fla. Heartsick, Ray and Carolyn Cooley prayed that day in 1985 that they could begin to show Christ's love to such people. Feeling God's call, they spent the evening pruning their tight budget and gauging their financial ability to rent a house that would serve homeless men. They followed through, and during the past 16 years almost 2,000 men have found refuge at Good Samaritan House (GSH), honored this year with a Florida "Points of Light" award-and some have found hope. The home provides emergency housing for homeless men recovering from traumas (such as surgery, a mental breakdown, or a prison term) and a longer transitional program for those ready to try to get back on their feet. Andrew Cunningham is one of the people helped. At age 22, he was on and off drugs, on and off the streets, and on and off in his relationship with God. Initial stints at Good Samaritan House and a Sarasota Salvation Army shelter didn't change him. But a stay in an abandoned house where he and a friend stayed "strung out on crack cocaine" convinced him to return to GSH. At 25, he emerged clean and sober. Now 13 years after that emergence, Mr. Cunningham is married with twin daughters, works as a certified nursing assistant, owns a home, and is an active church member. "Ray set my feet in the right direction," he says. At GSH, the right direction begins with a set of simple, nonnegotiable rules: Residents must remain alcohol- and drug-free, and accompany Mr. Cooley to church and Bible study weekly. They must secure a full-time job, or work as day laborers at a local temporary agency until they find permanent employment. GSH residents must pay rent: six dollars per night after their fifth free night of shelter. While they may spend a little money on personal needs, the men must save much of their earnings, with the goal of becoming economically independent of GSH. The rules include: In bed by 10:00 p.m., no foul language, no fighting, and no women. The rules echo those of 19th-century Christian workhouses. While neighbors and church members in American towns generally cared for people made suddenly poor by calamity or death, townspeople built workhouses for men made poor by alcoholism or sloth. Residents of such homes were expected both to work and pursue virtue in exchange for their keep. At the Chelmsford workhouse in Massachusetts, for example, the "master" of the house could at his discretion reward faithful and industrious men, while punishing "the idle, stubborn, disorderly and disobedient." Use of "spiritous liquors" was prohibited, and house rules demanded every man "diligently to work and labor." Although the Cooleys' efforts at GSH were grounded in such history, and in Scripture, many Sarasota Christians didn't support their efforts to help homeless individuals in the area. The house in which the Cooleys launched GSH stood on the property of a small Sarasota church; the church's leadership agreed to let the Cooleys rent it and start the shelter there. "But the church became upset with what we were doing," Mrs. Cooley said, "and the numerous needy and homeless [on the property] giving the church a bad image." After 11 months, the church asked the Cooleys to leave. That's when they bought the 1920s-era home that is now Good Samaritan House. The Cooleys don't hold fundraisers. Today, two churches regularly donate money and in-kind gifts to support GSH, but from the beginning, the couple financed-and still finance-the shelter largely with their own cash. That means Mr. Cooley, 61, continues to work five days a week as a zone technician for Verizon Wireless. After work, he goes home to spend time with his family; at about 8 p.m., he heads for GSH. There, he spends most evenings talking and watching television with the men who pile in after their own day's work to sink into sofas and chairs that crowd the paneled living room. Mornings, the aroma of brewing coffee lures residents downstairs to grab a cup before biking or busing to work. Mr. Cooley also leaves, going home to his family (if his wife and son-his daughters are grown-haven't spent the night at GSH) before heading off to his day job again. Mr. Cooley himself had struggled with alcoholism until a pastor's life inspired him to change. Today, he says his aim is "to live his faith in front of the men, to plant seeds." During each man's stay at GHS, Mr. Cooley guides him through a substance-abuse recovery program that emphasizes Christ as the basis of healing and renewal. Mrs. Cooley supports her husband, spending time at the house with him and the men, attending church with them Wednesday and Sunday evenings, and distributing free clothing to GSH residents and other Sarasota homeless people. The Cooleys say they rarely hear again from men who leave GSH: "They're embarrassed and don't want to be reminded" of things like job loss, mental illness, or substance abuse that led them there in the first place. But some, like Everett Reid, 36, maintain contact. He learned of GSH through Sarasota agencies that appreciate the Cooleys' no-nonsense biblical approach to helping homeless men become self-sufficient. "It's a good place for them to go. They have rules to follow," said Robert P. Kyllonen, executive director of Resurrection House, a day resource center for the homeless. Eleven months after showing up on GSH's oak-shaded front porch and starting to follow the rules, Mr. Reid moved to Jacksonville. He has completed the first year of a four-year sheet-metal apprenticeship. In February, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County recognized GSH with its Unsung Hero Award and commended the Cooleys for funding the program themselves, rather than waiting for outside assistance. With George W. Bush's offer to make faith-based programs eligible for federal grants, will the Cooleys now seek outside help? Mr. Cooley thinks not. He fears the Feds might tamper with GSH's staunchly biblical program. Still, he may seek funding for the Clothes Closet, a GSH clothing-distribution program that he sees as less vulnerable to government strings.

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