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  • Tara Crutchfield

Gospel Village

For ten years, Lakeland nonprofit Gospel Inc. has provided resources, fostered community, and helped find purposeful employment for homeless folks across the city. Founder Brian Seeley knew more could be done to serve this vulnerable population. Seeley, along with his Gospel Inc. team, volunteers, and community leaders, have worked together to secure sustainable and affordable long-term housing for the city’s chronically homeless. On February 3, 2021, property on E. Lemon Street, formerly Royal Oak Estates, was purchased, and renovations began for what was to become Gospel Village.


Many considered chronically homeless remain so due to mental or physical disabilities. Gospel Village offers permanent housing and dignified work for Lakeland’s chronically homeless. The tiny-home community currently has 35 units with plans to break ground on an additional 24 units in 2022. The nonprofit’s goal is to complete 150 units over the subsequent two phases of its project. Gospel Village is currently home to 40 residents.



HOME SWEET HOME

During a November 3 “Friendraiser” for Gospel Inc., volunteer Hailey gave us a tour of Gospel Village. An intern at Together Church, Hailey volunteers weekly at the village as a part of the ministry program called Lead Florida. Sprawling oak trees provide canopy above paths dissecting rows of newly remodeled units and community gathering spaces. We entered one home that had been renovated entirely, including new windows, paint, cabinetry, plumbing, lighting, appliances, and furnishings. Gospel Inc. partnered with local artist Jenna O’Brien to design the interior, “helping create a happy space, which we believe will positively affect their mental health. We also have partnered with local mental health experts and volunteers to host events here on-site so our residents can walk outside of their homes and participate,” according to our tour guide.


Gospel Village’s Restore Workshop Director, Robbie Lathrop said, “We believe that our residents need three things. They need to be in a relationship with Christ, they need community, and they need housing. This addresses the housing component of that. [...] When we bought the park in February, we knew there would be a number of these units that we needed to remodel. They are basically an extreme makeover.” Gospel Village invites residents to be active participants in the interior design process.


Next, we moved to the outdoor kitchen, gathering space, and farm. The Village hosts a community dinner every Thursday night for residents. Gospel Village offers community groups and bible studies to bolster that sense of community, which is at the core of its mission.


Down another pathway, a community fridge and pantry are stocked with donations of fresh produce and pantry goods from local community groups and churches. A form of therapy, dignified work, and farm fresh eggs, a chicken coop is situated adjacent to the community pantry. “It’s a powerful tool for those suffering from anxiety and loneliness while providing a work opportunity for those in our housing programs. For those who can’t work elsewhere, they can work here and help in areas like this to receive permanent housing,” noted a volunteer during the tour.


The tour concluded with the opportunity to buy handmade and sewn items from RePurpose Art Studio. The studio is a coffeehouse gathering spot for homeless women in the morning, with devotions and prayer available to those who stop by. The art studio receives donations of clothing, food, and craft items that are repurposed into aprons, jewelry, candles, and the like. Donations towards items at RePurpose Art Studio support the women who make them.


A LIFE’S CALLING TURNED COMMUNITY


“This is our ten-year anniversary as a corporation,” said Brian Seeley as he took the stage at the Friendraiser luncheon. The significance of that milestone has given him pause to reflect on “the journey that has brought us to this beautiful place.”


Seeley came to Lakeland in 2008 to attend Southeastern University to pursue a ministry degree. “I was a brand-new Christian, and God put a call on my life to work with the homeless. It was something that was really strong in my heart,” he said. He began making friends with other college students and discussing how they could engage and better get to know the homeless. “We began to spend every single day with homeless folks all around the community. They became our best friends.”


Seeley and his friends eventually moved into the Parker Street neighborhood. They rented two houses and invited their homeless friends to stay with them. “What started with two people turned into 40 people living on our property,” Seeley said. The Gospel Inc. founder described that period as “one of the greatest experiences of my life,” but also “one of the most chaotic experiences in my life and not at all sustainable.” Police visits were usual occurrences at their Parker Street residence, so much so that Seeley would have dreams about them showing up and clearing everyone out. One night, the police were called to the home and had everyone on the ground with hands on their heads, including Seeley. They asked if he allowed all these people to live there, shining a flashlight on each head. He answered yes. They asked if he realized that the City of Lakeland could have him evicted for having so many people there. Seeley thought, “Who’s the City of Lakeland?” He hadn’t thought about the impact he had on his neighbors. He was thinking about his mission to help the homeless. “I’m blessed by the City of Lakeland and the community leaders here that walked alongside me,” Seeley said.


In 2017, the City hired a consultant to help them think through and work towards resolving the issue of homelessness, particularly chronic homelessness, in Lakeland. Seeley was invited into that conversation. He learned that most chronically homeless people couldn’t gain employment for mental or physical health reasons. Their disability checks weren’t enough to afford rent, and many had no family or support systems. “I started grappling with this issue and started to dream of what we could do to provide a home and a community for people here,” he said.


Looking across the nation for best practices in providing long-term housing for the chronically homeless, they found Community First! Village in Austin, Texas. Seeley, Lakeland mayor Bill Mutz, executive director of Parker Street Ministries, Tim Mitchell, and other community leaders traveled to Austin. Community First! Village created a sustainable model with their 51-acre planned community and 1,200 homes dedicated to the chronically homeless. Seeley was blown away, calling Community First! Village “the Disney World of what we’re doing here.” He and his team began training to learn how to bring that model to Lakeland. “As we were envisioning what we wanted to do here, we came up with four pillars that were based on the model in Austin,” said Seeley.


“We believe a relationship with God is critical to a person’s growth,” he said of the first pillar. “It changes their lives. […] It’s an invitation that we extend of the gospel to the folks that we’re serving here. Our hope is that they know God. […] We believe God is at the center of it, and it’s his hand that is sovereign over this ministry to carry it through and accomplish the mission that we’ve got here.”


The second pillar is community. “What I discovered is that just having a roof over your head isn’t enough. […] People need a support system. In Austin, they say that the greatest cause of homelessness is the catastrophic loss of family. […] Community is so important, and we’re blessed by the community they provide us. We learn so much from the people that we’re serving.”


The third is a place of permanence – home. “A place that you can put down roots and settle,” said Seeley. “This is a permanent home. You don’t have to leave.” He noted that transitional housing programs don’t work for the folks that Gospel Inc. serves because they’re often unable to get or maintain full-time employment and their disability checks aren’t enough to sustain housing. “A place you can stay – there’s so much peace in that,” he said. “Then you can start to focus on your basic needs, things you can’t do when you’re out there on the street in survival mode.”


The final pillar Seeley discussed is purpose. “We provide work opportunities for everyone who is housed through our program. Everyone that we’re housing works for us, on our payroll, and that helps them contribute towards rent, and it puts money in their pocket.”



SUZIE’S STORY

During the Friendraiser luncheon, Gospel Inc. case manager Murray Lathrop took the stage to tell the story of one resident whose life trajectory changed entirely because she now has a place to call home. Lathrop runs the coffee shop in the morning at the art studio. “I met Suzie there. She was very consistent and quiet. [...] She would always go sit at this one table in the same chair,” she said. Gradually, Suzie shared her story with Lathrop. “A lot of these women are filled with trauma. They’re hurting. They have stories of wrecked lives. Each one has their own story, and they need to share it,” said the case manager.


Though diagnosed with learning disabilities in school, Suzie managed to earn a high school diploma. She also had health issues that have continued throughout her life. Suzie lived with her parents until they passed away with cancer. She went on to marry and have a daughter. Her husband left, and Suzie found herself unable to hold down two full-time jobs and raise a child with autism. Through this series of unfortunate life events and the loss of family, Suzie became homeless. “She ended up in a shelter and in my coffee shop,” said Lathrop.


Lathrop talked Suzie into participating in their sewing program. She did, reluctantly. After 16 weeks of hard work – she graduated. That allowed her to put money aside and secure housing at Gospel Village. She was one of the first women to move into the Village. After moving in earlier this year, her exhusband became ill and was hospitalized. He could no longer care for their daughter, and she, too, became homeless. But, because Suzie had secured long-term housing, her daughter could move in with her at Gospel Village.


Lathrop called Suzie a “hard worker” and a “sweetheart.” She brought her on stage to speak. Suzie said, “Thank you for giving myself and my daughter a safe place to live.”


A BIG ANNOUNCEMENT

Polk County Commissioner George Lindsey made a big announcement at the November Friendraiser. He explained that due to the pandemic, the County was the recipient of $126M to help those affected by COVID-19. “We pushed out a lot of money to people who lost their jobs, who had their hours cut back, businesses who were devastated. We gave $9M to the school system so they could buy laptops. We gave money to every Chamber of Commerce so they could help their members get through this mess. It was an enjoyable, necessary process,” Lindsey said. Following those funds, the County received some $30M to help the community with rent and utilities.


“Recently, under the ARP (The American Rescue Plan) money, we were notified that we’d get an additional $140M,” he said. That money was divided into two $70M sections. “Since we spent most of the money last time on social programs and helping people in their daily lives, the Board made a commitment that we were going to spend most of this part of the money for capital assets that will long last beyond our time in service here. So that it creates an asset for the community – roads and bridges and sidewalks.”


The commissioner continued, “But we still want to carve out money for ‘social infrastructure’ as I call it – things that have a social element but still have lasting life. We earmarked $10.5M for that purpose.” After announcing this to the community and requesting applications, they received 179 applications totaling just under $80M in three weeks. In a collaborative effort, the list of applicants was whittled down to 42.


Gospel Inc. received one of the largest allocations. Commissioner Lindsey said, “I’m proud to announce [...] Gospel Inc., through this program, will be awarded $824,000. That puts a knot in my throat. […] Your County Commission and your City Commission are very much behind the passion that you have here today, and this is just the beginning. […] We’re still in Genesis, and there’s a long way to go.” Brian Seeley announced that they would be purchasing the property next door to the current Gospel Village and building new units with that capital. “We’re going to be building 24 brand new units on this property. […] Our goal is 50 units over there,” Seeley said.


Before concluding the Friendraiser in a prayer, Mayor Bill Mutz said, “We are so grateful for the Board’s work on this, for Brian’s vision, for the County’s support, and for the ability to be a part of this and watch this grow, and to have solutions for people instead of ignoring them. That is what Christ called us to do. If we are to seek people and love unconditionally as a matter of course of our life to be able to live the gospel – this is what you do.”


Gospel Inc.

(863) 940-9001

FB @gospelinclkld

IG @gospelincministries

Mailing Address: P.O. Box 3278 Lakeland, FL 33802


Photography by Amy Sexson

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