Project Hope for the Homeless started out in 1993 as a small operation to offer emergency shelter for the homeless — and Executive Director Judy Burr, who has led the operation for 21 years, acknowledges that the idea of a homeless shelter in the area was difficult for the community to accept at first.
But the shelter gradually evolved and through the support of churches, volunteers and grant funding has expanded its mission with a $575,000 addition to the Painesville shelter, which opened in November.
The 12-member board of trustees of the Ecumenical Shelter Network of Lake County oversees Project Hope for the Homeless and Families Moving Forward, a weekday drop-in program and aftercare.
“It was a bit of a hot potato to have a shelter in Lake County,” she says. “We worked for years and years to try to dispel that myth. It took all the different denominations and churches to come together to finally say we are going to do this together.
“The churches looked at it as an extension of their mission to volunteer and provide meals.”
Cool to the idea
Before 1993, there was never any type of emergency shelter for the homeless, and just mentioning the idea raised fear of the unknown.
“What does that mean? What kind of people does that attract?” Burr says. “But when they found out that we have a staff and our primary purpose is to give shelter guests the resources they need to get back into society, people could see that it affects positive change.”
But earning public acceptance was a still a challenge.
“We had to earn the trust of a lot of people,” Burr says. “It just took a long time. They saw that there was integrity; that people were graduating and former shelter guests were volunteering on our board and staff and they saw that it was working.”
One of the success stories has in turn become an ambassador for Project Hope. A shelter guest who had been a former gang member pulled his life together, thanks to Project Hope, and returned to give back to the center, for a time even serving on the board of trustees.
“He truly was fleeing for his life; he had been involved in a lot of criminal behavior most of his adult life,” Burr says. “He had an awakening from God when he was at the shelter. He had a very personal experience when we were offering optional Bible study to everyone.
“He got up and started shouting that God was real. He hit the ground running from there. He got a job, he got married. He got a house and then he became a pastor. He has been doing wonderful, wonderful things ever since.”
Stories like that warm the heart, but they also play a role in building support. For example, a retired builder had taken notice of the shelter’s mission and decided he wanted to get more involved. When he learned the center wanted to expand because it needed more space to separate families with children from the adult population, he put together a design/build team from the many relationships he had developed over the years.
“About $350,000 of labor and materials were donated, and about that much was raised in cash as well,” Burr says. “When the community learned of the effort, they really responded. It was wonderful. It was a great community project.”
Project Home offers emergency shelter care and guidance for 35 people a night, but Burr hopes to double that figure, now that the shelter has been enlarged.
That goal, again, will be reached gradually, Burr says, but she feels there is strong community support for that expansion.
“The mission itself draws people. How can you not feel good about responding to human hurts and the hopes of people?” she says. “There is so much good that comes from that.”
There are about 200 volunteers at Project Hope and each is an unofficial ambassador.
“When they come in and they experience it for themselves, they go out and talk about that,” Burr says. “Not only are they coming in to help people, but they are having an experience that is very relationship wise. Then when they leave, they want to tell the world.
“It just spreads when people know you are doing something legitimate, something good and that has a good outcome. They want to be part of that. We have been blessed to have great leadership on our board and on our staff. We have the cream of the crop working here as social workers and administrators.
“We pray, even though our mission is what drives us and it is in the name of and the sake of Jesus. That doesn’t mean we are trying to put that on other people. But it is what drives us to do what we do.”
How to reach: Project Hope for the Homeless, (440) 354-6417 or www.projecthopeonline.org
New Life auction and dinner
Project Hope for the Homeless will host New Life, a fundraising dinner and auction to support neighbors experiencing homelessness at 6 p.m., May 8 at The Banquet Center at St. Noel, 35200 Chardon Road in Willoughby Hills. For more information, call (440) 354-6417.