Kayla was desperate. The money she had saved for the security deposit needed to rent a place had been stolen, leaving her and her children without a roof over their heads. Due to give birth in less than three months, she was out of options.
“I was born and raised in Vero, graduated from Vero Beach High School, and have worked hard all my life. I never thought I wouldn’t have a place to go home to,” says Kayla, recalling the situation in which she found herself in September 2022.
Lacking family support and not knowing where else to turn, Kayla contacted the Hope for Families Center (HFC), a nonprofit that provides temporary housing, programs, structure, and consistency that build a foundation for long-term independence. Collaborations with local agencies provide children’s programs, employment training, and mental health support.
The day after meeting with HFC executive director Marty Mercado and case manager Sabrina Cruz, Kayla and her children became residents. For the first time in what seemed like forever, the single mother breathed a sigh of relief.
When asked what one word best describes how she felt at the time, Kayla says softly, “Peace. I felt at peace.”
“Our shelter delivers the first vital component that homeless families need, and that’s a home, a place to go to and feel safe, and that’s what Kayla needed,” says Mercado.
She continues: “We provide the refuge, the education, and the consistency homeless families need to get back on their feet. Our goal is to not only keep them safe today, but to give them the resources they need to provide for themselves over the long term. When Kayla came here she was barely surviving. She wasn’t listening, hardly talking. After a few short months, that’s changed; she’s opened up more and is doing well. At this point we know Kayla and her children are going to be okay.”
For their part, residents must be alcohol and drug free, participate in the educational programs, and save 75 percent of their earnings. Case managers work with each family to develop a plan with the goal of moving them into permanent housing.
The HFC campus on Fourth Street has a building with 21 living units. Beds, linens, personal hygiene products, laundry supplies, and other items, such as diapers, are provided as needed. Every resident receives three meals a day, including prepackaged lunches to take to school or work.
There’s a dining area, a library, common living spaces, a playground, outdoor recreation area, and administrative offices. The adjacent property with a duplex on it was donated to the nonprofit. At present, two families who are not quite ready to be on their own are living there.
Approximately 60 percent of the residents are children under the age of 18. In the morning they grab their backpacks and head off to school, returning midafternoon, backpacks filled with homework assignments. For some, HFC may be the only real home they’ve known.
For too long the shelter has been bursting at the seams, and with 100-plus families on the waiting list, HFC recently launched a $6 million capital campaign in order to build additional housing.
Ambitious? Definitely. Necessary? Without a doubt.
“We started talking about the need to expand our shelter about a year ago in order to double the number of families we can help,” says Charles “Chuck” Cunningham, president of HFC’s board of directors. “The initial phase of the campaign involves building 21 units connected to the east side of the existing facility. The second phase is to replace the duplex and build nine units in what we call ‘Hope House.’”
The timing for putting shovels into the ground is still in the foggy future, but the optimist in Cunningham sees it happening sooner rather than later.
“Because of the strained economy, the need for our services has been increasing. Inflation has made it difficult for people to buy things like food, and with the end of COVID subsidies, the cost of renting has gone sky high.”
“Close to 100 percent of those who come here already have a job; they may have two or three jobs, but they still can’t come close to making ends meet,” Cunningham points out. “Many people in this county are what we call the ‘working poor.’ They’re just a paycheck away from being homeless. All it takes is one emergency; it could be a car repair, an unexpected medical expense, or an increase in insurance costs, and poverty becomes a reality.
“Think about the impact. It could happen to anybody: your restaurant server, or the cashier at Publix, the one whose line you always head for, or a teacher at your child’s school. Also, think about an 8-year-old boy living in a car and having to clean up in a gas station bathroom before going to school. For some, that’s a reality, that’s what’s happening in our county.”
Cunningham’s comments mirror the United Way of Indian River County’s most recent ALICE report (Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed, May 2020), which shows that of the county’s 57,636 households, 44 percent struggle to pay for the basic necessities.
HFC is a success story that got its start 30-plus years ago when a man named Dick Van Mele helped a homeless individual. Knowing there were others like him, Van Mele told his friends. Soon they began meeting weekly at the Patio restaurant, the trunks of their cars filled with blankets and supplies. Word got out, the car trunks opened, and the homeless people came and gratefully took what they needed.
It was a grassroots effort that led to the conversion of a former nursing home into a shelter that initially provided temporary housing for individuals. When it became evident that the number of homeless families needing help had increased, the focus changed.
Over the years, the names of key supporters and benefactors have also changed. Cunningham is there because of a request. “There was a board opening and a friend of mine who was chairman at the time wanted me to fill it. My wife, Mary Beth, and I had donated money to various nonprofits over the years, and she said, ‘You know, we really need to go and take a good look around, see what HFC is all about.’
“It took me about 20 minutes to decide I wanted to be a part of it. I called my friend and told him, ‘Okay, I’ll be on the board,’ and he said, ‘That’s great, I’m stepping down,’ so here I am,” says Cunningham, his smile as big as his heart for helping others.
“I made a pact with Marty that I’ll be around for the next five years, if she would. She agreed. There’s so much we want to do. We have the land and we have a structured program we know works; now we need to raise money so we can move ahead.
“By doubling the number of families we help, we can break the cycle of homelessness. We can change their future and affect generations to come.”