Helping the Homeless in Florida

Helping the Homeless in Florida

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Published:
October 8, 2020

Eric Camarillo, 31, is running the biggest mobile homeless center in Orlando, Florida — a ministry he started nine years ago as a way to get young Adventists involved in community service. 

Question: SALT, a youth and young adult ministry that you started, has been helping homeless people in Orlando, Florida. Please tell us more about what you are doing to help.

Our homeless outreach started in 2011 with two Adventist young adult women who were cooking for and feeding 15 to 20 homeless individuals in downtown Orlando. When we found out what they were doing I asked them to be a part of SALT, so that we could grow the ministry together. By 2016 there were hundreds of volunteers helping to feed 300 homeless individuals every two weeks. 

That year we also fundraised for a trailer. We retrofitted it and called it our "Change" trailer — a place where we can provide clothing and hygiene products. We also added volunteer barbers around that time. 

In 2018 we raised $40,000 for a shower trailer with four full bathrooms, so that people could get clean themselves before changing into clean, new clothes. This was especially helpful for people preparing for job interviews.

At the same time, we launched our mobile day service center for the homeless, where showers, food, clothing, hygiene products, and haircuts are all available.

The mobile day service center began opening once a month in September 2018. In 2019 we were able to open twice a month, and at the beginning of this year we were in operation one day a week.

After being featured on 3ABN, different local and international news outlets, and being more intentional about obtaining sponsorships and fundraising, we were bringing in enough funds to grow at that rate. We hired our first two employees to help us operate once a week in February. Then COVID-19 hit in mid-March. 

We had been fostering a relationship with the city and since they believed we could be the only place that could continue operating with the least amount of risk to the homeless population (since we operate outdoors) they decided to provide a total of $140,000 for us to provide our services to the homeless (including providing PPE) from mid-March through the end of September. 

At a city council meeting in September, they voted to provide funding of $250,000 to us for a year from October 2020 through the end of September 2021. With this funding we have been able to hire eight employees; we will have a social worker starting in November and will be hiring another in January; and we of course are partnering with other local organizations to help end homelessness in downtown Orlando for those experiencing it.

We also have partnered with a local Adventist Church, which brings out a mobile stage to offer a church service outside with the homeless once per month. We will also be hiring a chaplain to help provide for the spiritual needs of the homeless.

Do you feel that there are many more people needing help in Orlando now as a result of the pandemic?

Yes! For sure. We have seen people who have become homeless as a result of places of employment closing down or downsizing. Unfortunately, after this pandemic is over there will be a pandemic of homelessness. 

We are hoping God continues to build our capacity so we can help the growing need! Prior to the pandemic we may have had 50 or 60 people come out to get services on a Sunday. Now we are seeing 150+ people come on a Sunday. During the week we are even seeing over 100 people. All of the theme parks are laying off staff, and this is one of the big contributors.

So you have grown significantly as a result of recent city funding, since you are so well-placed to help people now during the COVID pandemic. Do you see SALT changing permanently as a result of the COVID situation?

We have grown significantly as a result of the city funding. Prior to city funding we were operating once a week, and now we are open four days a week. I believe we will continue to move forward. 

We have built some important relationships with both the city and other key players in the city and we believe they will continue to fund this operation. 

We also started taking interns, starting this semester. I have five non-profit interns now who will help with grant writing and fundraising efforts. We are also going to bring on social work interns as well, beginning in January. 

The many individual donations, corporate donations, and grants are also helping to offset cost. For example, next year our budget will be $395,000, with $250,000 coming from the city and the other $145,000 coming from our own fundraising efforts. This year we are anticipating to end the year with about $120,000 in donations.

Are you modeling SALT on any other existing ministries within or outside the Adventist Church?

We are not modeling the ministry after anything existing whether inside or outside the Adventist Church. We have just been following God's leading and moving forward in faith! As far as we know, we are the only mobile day center for the homeless in the United States. There are organizations that have shower trailers, maybe one that has shower and laundry, maybe a clothing and hygiene trailer, but none are bringing all the different services and resources together in a mobile form the way that we are. By January 2021 we will be offering all the same services the majority of centers offer — including case management — but in a mobile form.

How and why did you start SALT?

The organization started back in 2011, a year after I became an Adventist Christian (before that I was a Catholic). Coming into the church, a few things stood out to me. I didn't feel like the churches in the area were doing consistent community outreach, and as a result relationships weren't being created with the community. There were purely evangelistic efforts like door-to-door ministry, or once in a while big community events, but I believed that relationships needed to be created with the community to truly lead them to Christ and show them who we are as a church! 

I also noticed the young adults were leaving the church and as a young adult myself (I was 22 when I became Adventist) I knew a big part of it was because they did not see the church truly making a difference in the community.

So the idea of SALT Outreach was to gather young adults from different area churches to do consistent outreach in the community. Since one church may have three young adults, another church may have five, and another may have 10, this was a way to consistently gather young adults together and form a young adult community outside of church on Sabbath.

At one point, half of our leadership team were “backslidden” young Adventist adults who started coming back to church again 

When I got the idea in August of 2011 to start this ministry, I shared it with two close friends of mine. We prayed together and came up with the name SALT — an acronym for Service And Love Together. 

We then hosted our first event and had about 150 young adults come together in September from at least ten different churches — we even had a group from a non-denominational church there who wanted to be a part of it all. We had worship and pitched the idea to everyone. 

Following that event, I reached out to all of the young adults I knew who had a passion for ministry and asked them what type of ministry they were most passionate about. One said nursing home ministry, another said children, another said homeless ministry. I helped each of them develop the concept for that ministry, and we held another big event in November 2011. 

At our November event, about 250 attended and there were 10 different ministries they could choose to volunteer with. So, after that event, 10 new ministries were able to get off the ground. 

We developed a small leadership team and by our one-year anniversary in September of 2012, we had about 850 young adults coming from all over Florida to worship with us. Many of them wanted to start something similar where they lived. 

We put a heavy emphasis on expansion for the next few years and built a leadership team of over 30 people, but we finally realized we were stretching ourselves too thin. 

In 2016 we decided to consolidate our ministry to three: The homeless ministry, a kids ministry, and a hospital ministry. 

How did you come to join the Adventist Church?

To make a long story short, I was going through a really hard time in January of 2010. Someone had bought me a Bible the previous Christmas and I had never opened it. One morning that January I decided to open it (I believe the Spirit moved me to do so). I flipped through the Bible and started to see that some of the writing was in red. As I was flipping, I saw the most red in Matthew 5, 6, and 7. So I started to read and those verses brought me a comfort I had never felt before. And I just could not stop reading! I was so engrossed that my mom had to bring food to my room because I didn’t even think about eating. 

My mom thought I was going crazy. I grew up Catholic and my family on both sides have been Catholic for generations. My mom did not think it was necessary for me to read the Bible. I started to say that I was thinking about not being Catholic anymore. So she made me sit down with a priest a week later. That was an interesting experience, but it definitely confirmed to me I was going in the right direction.

I continued to read and there were a lot of things I was reading that I did not understand. So I called up three people who I knew were Christians and it turned out two of the three were Adventists. 

I began learning about the Adventist faith. The Adventist truth and the way they take the whole Bible into context and use the Greek and Hebrew to explain things really captivated me. 

I ended up googling a Seventh-day Adventist church to start attending, thinking that maybe one day my mom might attend with me. That's when I found the Orlando Filipino Seventh-day Adventist Church. I walked into the church and said to the first person I saw that I wanted to be baptized. It turned out that he was one of the elders, and he introduced me to the pastor. I studied with him for about a month and was baptized in May of 2010!

Where are you from?

I was born in Chicago and grew up there until I was about 14. My family and I moved to Florida partially because I was held at gunpoint for wearing the wrong colors and partially because they wanted to get away from the winter. I graduated from high school in Clermont, Florida in 2006.

What did you study?

After I started SALT in 2011, I decided to go back to school and I got my AA, then got my bachelor’s in Social Work in 2016, then graduated with my master’s in Non-Profit Management in 2019. I also got my certification as a Certified Non-Profit Professional and received a graduate Certificate in Fundraising.

Do you work on SALT full time now, or do you have another day job?

By God's grace one day I will be full time with the ministry! At the moment I am currently putting in about 40 hours a week with SALT but I also work a day job. I work in the Human Resource department with Amazon as a Disability Case Manager. 

It's been rough trying to juggle those things and my marriage, but my wife is very busy at the moment as well. So whenever she is free I make sure that we are able to spend time together! And of course on Sabbaths we have the whole day together. 

Is SALT an official non-profit? What kind of governance do you have?

We were incorporated in May 2012, and received our 501(c)3 status in January of 2016. We have a board of directors, and volunteer leaders, then we have our staff, then normal volunteers. Our board members and volunteer leaders are truly the backbone of the organization! Since SALT started we have probably had over 120 young adult volunteer leaders and all of them have contributed in a significant way to making SALT what it is today! We are building two advisory boards as well.

What were your goals for SALT when it began? Have you met those GOALS? Did you envision creating something like SALT has become?

In the beginning I envisioned an organization that would engage young adults in outreach, inspire our church to dream bigger, and provide a community of outreach to people within our church. I also desired to be an organization that fills the gaps for those in need. 

I did not envision it to be solely a homeless ministry. I thought it would be an umbrella of a variety of outreach projects, but with COVID-19 we had to stop our hospital ministry and our kids ministry ended last year. 

One thing I planned is that we would have SALT in every major city. Once we have a master copy here in Orlando, we want to duplicate all over and of course shift gears to meet the need in that particular community. 

Have we met the goal of engaging young adults in practical community service? Yes, but we have a long way to go. 

Have we accomplished inspiring our churches to dream and think bigger? I hope so and if we haven't yet we hope that time will come soon as God continues to take us to the next level. 

Are we filling the gaps where there is need? The city of Orlando does not have a mobile day service center for all homeless individuals so we are filling that gap. But there are so many more gaps we want to fill! With more time we are hoping to do that. The homeless ministry has grown bigger and faster than we ever thought it would. 

God says He will do, "far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think" in Ephesians 3:20 and He definitely did that here! We are encouraged to dream and think even bigger and that’s what we are going to do! I think so often we put a ceiling on what we think God is able to do, but with God there is no ceiling. 

Matthew 25 says:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

When it talks about providing food, drink, clothing, and shelter I believe that is our homeless outreach. Visiting the sick was our hospital outreach. And right before COVID-19 we were getting ready to start a prison ministry to fully exemplify these verses. The hospital and prison ministry is on hold right now though but we hope to get it started again eventually!

So where do you see SALT in five years? 10 years?

In five years I envision SALT's homeless ministry being in at least 10 major cities across the US. We would have full time directors and executive leadership. And we would be ending homelessness in partnership with other community organizations and bringing many souls to Christ! 

In 10 years (if Jesus isn't back by then) I see us in every major city in the US. SALT would look different in every city — maybe some city has all the resources it needs to help the homeless and maybe SALT in that area is a completely different ministry. But we would have a presence in every major city across the US, and with God's help we would be changing lives and winning souls! 

Is SALT an explicitly Adventist organization?

We are an ASI ministry. All of our board members are Seventh-day Adventists, and so are all of our volunteer executive staff. Not all of our staff are Adventists but those making the decisions and choosing the direction are Adventists!

What do you enjoy the most about working on the SALT ministry? What is the biggest challenge?

I really feel like I enjoy everything. But I think the non-profit management aspect and seeing how that ties to impact is exciting for me. When people think of someone doing ministry they think of someone in person helping someone else. Yes, that is definitely ministry. But ministry can also be someone sitting behind a computer!

What I most enjoy is getting to know our friends experiencing homelessness and being able to meet their needs and truly exemplifying who Christ is to them individually and through the organization. Seeing lives being changed in all aspects is what I most enjoy!

The biggest challenge right now is our size. We are right in the middle. We need executive staff because the workload has become too much for just volunteers to fulfill. We at least need a full-time executive director. But we do not have the funding for that at the moment. 

So we are just continuing to move forward and we are praying that God will provide the funding for us to hire some full time administrative and executive staff especially an executive director. 

As volunteer executive director doing 40 hours a week and 35 to 40 hours at my day job is just not sustainable. I will be cutting my hours with SALT in the next few weeks but the organization definitely needs those hours! So we will just keep praying that God opens a door!

What is SALT doing really well? What could it do better?

I think what SALT is doing really well is being transparent and genuine. It has great leadership and staff who are helping us to be able to deliver quality services to those experiencing homelessness. I think we could definitely do better in getting the word out! Also we could do better in fundraising, grant writing, and corporate sponsorships. I hope the interns we brought on will be key in that area. 

I think adding case management will be key for us as well so we can have a more structured approach in meeting the needs of the homeless. 

Although we have a mobile church that comes out once a month, and we have spiritual material available, we really want to emphasize the spiritual aspect of the ministry more than we do, which is where I believe bringing in a chaplain or Bible worker could help us to really build those spiritual connections with our friends experiencing homelessness. 

 

Watch a video about SALT's impact in 2020 so far below or by clicking here:

 

Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.

Photos courtesy of Eric Carmarillo.

 

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