About 25 of Ocala’s homeless women and men will have a place to stay this fall, following a deal struck between Open Arms Village and St. Mark’s United Methodist Church this week.
On Monday, St. Mark’s announced plans to let Open Arms Village transform former church classrooms into future shelter for the city’s homeless, located at 1839 NE 8th Road.
Open Arms, an organization aiming to provide housing and job opportunities for the homeless, has been trying to secure a location for its mission since 2012.
Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn began working with the organization at that time, but he said potential plans kept falling through. The deal struck Monday will allow the organization to move forward.
Guinn said he was originally inspired by Pinellas Hope, a St. Petersburg tent-city shelter, and wanted to help start a similar program in Ocala.
Pinellas Hope, which was started in 2007, runs a shelter ministry that assists 250 homeless men and women, according to their website. The shelter offers residents GED and resume-writing classes as well as services such as assigned case managers.
Though securing a location was difficult, looking back, Guinn said the drawn-out process might have been for the best.
“It’s good because I think this location fits and the church mission fits,” he said.
Guinn said the church is near community businesses, so getting jobs within walking distance will be attainable for future residents. The church also plans on offering the residents volunteer opportunities.
According to Rev. Susan Gray of St. Mark’s, the church was praying for a mission when it decided to make a deal with Open Arms. She said the building the church agreed to let Open Arms use is in good condition.
“It has commercial bathrooms and rooms for sleeping spaces, and there’s ample outdoor space,” she said.
Daniel Horton, executive director of the Marion County Homeless Council, said Open Arms will make a big impact because it aims to help integrate homeless people back into the community by not only putting a roof over their heads and but also helping them re-learn work skills.
As of January 2013, the homeless population of Marion County was about 530 people, according to the last Point-in-Time count conducted by the Marion County Continuum of Care.
Horton said there is an absolute need for more programs like Open Arms in the area, since available shelters such as Salvation Army and Project Hope are “always full.”
He said both the Salvation Army and Interfaith Emergency Services, another shelter, are looking to expand their facilities, but they do not have the resources.
“The fact is, we’re in this position because of the economy,” Horton said. “Our median monthly income has dropped for two years in a row. That’s pretty bad when some of our programs require aid.”