Chane Clemen sits at a corner table in a downtown Ocala Starbucks. Every day, the 31-year-old comes in with only a backpack and laptop to do work for an online class. But every night, Clemen goes to sleep in the woods.
Clemen is one of the hundreds of homeless and distressed members of the Ocala community who Ken, 59, and Wendy Kebrdle, 44, strive to get to know each Saturday morning over a cup of coffee, according to Ken Kebrdle.
Ken Kebrdle said they are hoping to change the way the city addresses homelessness by promoting service that does not focus on handouts. Instead, they hold training classes at local churches to teach community members about relationally-driven service.
He said their concepts are considered unconventional, resulting in resistance from some community members and organizations who serve in other ways.
Giving Up The American Dream
The Kebrdles moved their family of six from Columbus, Ohio, to Ocala in 2002. They have three daughters, Aimee, 31, Sarah, 26, and Madison, 17, and one son, Brandon, 24. Wendy Kebrdle was a stay-at-home mom, and Ken Kebrdle ran a lawn care and pest control business for about 30 years.
After serving on two mission trips to Romania, the American Dream felt tainted for the Kebrdles.
“These families of two to three generations lived together in small little huts with absolute peace and joy, and we’re working 60 hours a week to maintain a house. Something was out of whack there,” Ken Kebrdle said.
“We began getting ourselves ready for whatever God was going to do,” Wendy Kebrdle added.
While sitting in a doctor’s office in Ocala in 2009, Wendy Kebrdle said she picked up a magazine and read an article about a family that sold everything and moved into a bus.
Exactly four months from the moment Wendy Kebrdle read that article, she said they pulled out of the driveway, moving from a 4,000-square-foot house to a 320-square-foot recreational vehicle.
A Flawed System
When they first left their Florida home, Ken Kebrdle said their mission was to collaborate with churches to get them involved on the streets of their cities.
They are funded entirely by individuals, Wendy Kebrdle said. They receive $10 a month from about 200 people through PayPal, and that’s what the Kebrdles live on.
The Kebrdles spent four years on the road with their daughter Madi, who was then 12 and the youngest and only child that still lived at home. They traveled through central Florida, Georgia, New Orleans, Texas and Oklahoma serving the homeless populations.
Ken Kebrdle said they stayed for about three months in each place to immerse themselves in the culture and build relationships with the people there.
But during these travels, he said they also learned that they did not agree with the systems in place.
“We are against feeding lines, soup kitchens and panhandling,” Ken Kebrdle said. “We believe in utilizing your assets. Allow the homeless to serve and give back.”
Wendy Kebrdle said there are many ways to serve, but they want to build relationships and try to instill a sense of dignity and value in the lives of the people they meet.
Running on fumes and out of money, Ken Kebrdle said the family returned to Ocala in September 2013.
Now, every Saturday morning, they sit at tables on the lawn of Interfaith Emergency Services in Ocala, eating breakfast and drinking coffee with the homeless.
They hold Church in the Garden there at least once a month where they have an average of about 200 people. But Ken Kebrdle said they don’t serve these people or put on a show for them. It is the people’s church and they serve one another.
The Kebrdles provide the supplies, but Ken Kebrdle said it is the homeless who set up tables, serve coffee, play in the band and give testimonies.
“Christ sat with the woman at the well to get to know her and relate to her,” Wendy Kebrdle said. “He never had a feeding line. It wasn’t a soup kitchen where you get a pile of slop, say next and never know anyone’s name.”
Jayne Moraski, executive director of Family Promise of Gainesville, believes shelters and soup kitchens serve a great need in the community.
“We absolutely have people who are hungry every day,” Moraski said. “I receive calls from people who are living in their cars with their toddlers and need a place to sleep.”
Moraski said Family Promise of Gainesville serves about four homeless families at a time, which allows volunteers to make the service personal. They provide shelter, food and supplies to the families.
She said the Kebrdles’ relational focus is needed, but a variety of services are vital for homeless people, including food and shelter.
Ken Kebrdle said this idea of a relational service has caused more resistance than they ever thought it would.
He said they have had church members walk out of training classes because they did not agree. They have had pastors turn them away and refuse to help because the church gives monetarily.
But Ken Kebrdle said they have also seen some pastors and community members embrace this service with an open mind.
He said they try to teach their students to invest time and always ask questions.
“It’s really about being aware of the consequences of our acts of service,” Ken Kebrdle said. “Is it loving to give a homeless person money? It would be the easiest thing to do. But it is potentially more loving to stop and ask a question.”
Chane Clemen is an example of their service. Every Saturday morning, the Kebrdles have coffee and breakfast with him.
After recognizing his passion for programming, Wendy Kebrdle said they connected him with a business leader who will offer him an internship so he can learn coding.
“That’s a better way to help Chane,” Wendy Kebrdle said. “That’s going to help him in the long run versus just buying him a cup of coffee and moving on, never knowing his name or his story.”
Clemen said he hopes to build a resume, so he can someday fulfill his dream of becoming a successful app developer.
But the Kebrdles’ goal is not to help get people like Clemen off the streets. Ken Kebrdle said it is about loving them and helping them find value in themselves.
“When you start seeing the value in people and allow them to bless others, we have seen people rise up and change,” Ken Kebrdle said.
Steve Werthman, vice president of operations with HOPE South Florida, said it is essential to create these kinds of connections.
HOPE South Florida is a non-profit overflow shelter program that provides temporary housing until units at local shelters or long-term apartments become available.
Building relationships with the homeless is an important natural support system. He said many homeless people are detached from any kind of social networking.
But Werthman said it is just as important to get these people off the streets. He said it’s a dangerous and traumatizing place for homeless people and their families to live.
He said building hope and building housing go hand-in-hand, especially for those who have nowhere else go.
“Our goal is to reach a point where we don’t have any homeless families on the street or living in cars in Broward County,” he said.
Although organizations like Family Promise and HOPE South Florida believe getting people off the streets is instrumental in the rehabilitation process, the Kebrdles believe the best they can offer is the gospel, an open ear and love.
“If we show them dignity and love, then maybe they will feel that they are worth more than where they are at now,” Ken Kebrdle said.