In the depths of homelessness, George has slept inside McDonald’s restaurants and behind shopping plazas. He has also fallen asleep at Central Florida parks, though not heavily, not the deep sleep that produces dreams, because his safety was in jeopardy when day turned to night.

A graduate of Osceola High School in Kissimmee, George scraped by, working same-day and temp jobs, obscuring his homelessness from employers. At 19, he met his wife, Jary, and they were both homeless living independently from their families. George, now 25, has been married 5 years and has twin girls, age 4, with Jary.

For 20 years, George was homeless or working his way through the system, accruing life lessons about street life and gaps in Central Florida’s housing system. Eventually, in 2017, George and Jary connected with Zebra Coalition, an organization that helps with homelessness. George and Jary moved to Orlando and Zebra Coalition provided them with temporary housing. While living there, George acquired a job at a call center for a bank and eventually moved into his own apartment.

The same year, his case worker, Ann, introduced him to Kimberlee Riley, who was the Regional Director for Ability Housing and who now is the president and CEO of The Catholic Foundation of Central Florida. At the time, Kimberlee was serving the Tri-County Continuum of Care and the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness and was also the chair of the Homeless Youth Work Committee. Kimberlee was engaging with homeless youth to create the community’s first Youth Advisory Board (YAB). YABs are a best practice initiative in the U.S. for addressing youth homelessness. YABs lead and support provides in better understanding issues in the community system of care. She connected George with the YAB, and he became one of the founding members.

As a member of YAB, George has informed various providers that assist the homeless how to better reach and engage homeless youth and improve system of community services. George and his peers created the structure, budget, and a new name for their group — they are now called the Youth Action Society (YAS) because they not only serve the community but are also youth who are still living on the streets. George began working for The Catholic Foundation in October 2018, continued his volunteer work with YAS, and was asked to serve on the Catholic Foundation of Central Florida’s Community Housing Development Organization (CHDO) board as a person with homelessness lived experience. This October, he aged out of YAS and is now an advisor.

The advice that George tells service providers is, “Be nice, kind, and have empathy because some things are out of homeless individuals’ control and yours. Even if you are not able to help, show compassion. Don’t treat people like they are relying on the government and handouts. Some people never had a chance… like me.”

George adds, “Homeless people are often the most hardworking and busy people. When I was looking for a job, on average it took me three hours to take the bus to my destination and three hours back, then add in however much time I spent at the place(s). That is an entire day. I had to plan every minute of my day. When I finally got a job, I had to wake up at 6am to make it to my job at 10am and I did not get home until 11pm or sometimes 12am. I had no car and the buses only came every 30 minutes to one hour. Therefore, if you miss the bus, then you could be 30 minutes to one hour late.”

In The Catholic Foundation of Central Florida’s Strategic Plan, one of our values and goals is to “Support Community.” George said this value resonates with him the most. George supports ending homelessness by being an advisor to YAS. George believes it is crucial for people to support each other. He explained, “It is not just the Christian thing to do, but the human thing to do.” George dislikes when people label others as “Black, White, American, Puerto Rican, Texan etc.” He said it is “divisive and it divides us.”

Something that George’s father told him that he has always remembered is, “We all bleed red. We should not view others with labels, but as human beings, or better, as brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Earlier this year The Catholic Foundation of Central Florida partnered with a generous donor to create The Affordable Housing Endowment. This fund supports the development of affordable housing units by Catholic Charities of Central Florida, which also provides supportive services for residents.

Kimberlee explains that, “What most people do not know is that studies show that our communities pay more for services, health care, law enforcement, and judicial costs than it costs for us to provide affordable housing.” Furthermore, she states that “Our families and youth need affordable housing in order to be able to share their God-given talents and be productive members of our society.”

Please click here to support new development of affordable housing in Central Florida.

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