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  • Tara Crutchfield

Talbot House Ministries

Talbot House Ministries has been serving the homeless since 1979. The organization offers food, shelter, free medical and dental care, residential recovery programs, employment training and placement, and affordable housing opportunities to those in need. Its aim is to empower the unhoused men and women of our community with purpose and self-sufficiency. Talbot House is the most comprehensive provider of homeless services in Polk County.


“I believe we have the best, knowledgeable, professionally trained team in the entire Polk County area,” said Maria Cruz, Executive Director of Talbot House Ministries. Cruz has been working in the homeless field for over 24 years. She previously worked for the Coalition for the Homeless as the director of housing programs for nine years before joining the Talbot House two years ago. Cruz comes from a family that stayed engaged in the community. She grew up giving to others, calling it an ‘innate’ part of herself. “I believe we are here in this life, on this Earth, to serve others,” she said.




A PLACE OF PURPOSE

Talbot House is most known for its emergency shelter. At 4 pm, some 140 folks come to the House to shower, wash laundry, have a meal, and sleep for the night. After breakfast, they go back into the community. Talbot House proposed a Day Center to the City of Lakeland last year and is waiting to hear back. They also act as a safe haven for vulnerable individuals and victims of domestic violence in which they can stay for the night and are evaluated the following day by a case manager to determine what avenue would best serve them.


The organization offers two short-term residential programs. These initiatives provide case management and educational opportunities for adults experiencing homelessness. The programs last six to 24 months and take place within a structured, sober-living environment.


In addition to emergency shelter and residential programs, they have outreach initiatives. “We visit the encampments in the community and provide them with water, clothing, shoes, food, hygiene kits, health-related kits,” said Cruz. “We bring a medical licensed counselor to talk to them and case managers to talk to them. We partner with drug and recovery programs, and they come with us to the communities as well.”


These outreach programs are expanding. What started with a small grant from the City of Winter Haven became a sizable grant from Direct Relief. “We are going to be hiring an outreach coordinator to impact all encampments in Polk County,” Cruz said. They also plan to buy a new vehicle with a portable shower to bring to the encampments.


Over the last year, Talbot House has piloted a diversion program, which is a best practice from Housing First. As people enter their doors, “We assess individuals and let them know if there is anything we can help them with that could prevent them from entering the emergency system.” Talbot House has successfully diverted 129 individuals from homelessness in the first year with the seed of $40K from a private donor.


“What we wanted to do with this – with the first pilot data – was to prove to and show the community that these approaches work,” said Cruz. She envisions investing money in these proven approaches to reduce police intervention, emergency service intervention, and hospitalization. “How much will we save if you invest this little amount compared to spending $14K in an emergency intervention?” she said.


Talbot House Ministries offers affordable housing as well. The ministry owns and operates 46 units of affordable housing and partners with Plateau Village to provide referrals and wraparound services to an additional 36 households. The organization partners with Homeless Coalition of Polk County and receives federal grants for housing, including rapid rehousing, permanent supportive programs, and housing vouchers.


Their employment solution program, with job skills coordinators and employment specialists, connects the unsheltered with employment opportunities and helps train them in skills like building a resume, getting dressed for interviews, communicating professionally, and financial literacy and planning. These programs aren’t only for their residents but the entire homeless community.


The on-site Good Samaritan Clinic offers free medical, dental, and mental healthcare to uninsured, low-income individuals in Polk County.


The Talbot House food pantry is open to the community every Tuesday and Thursday and serves 525 households monthly.


“Talbot House is expanding. We are going to be opening another location in the Polk County area,” said Cruz. Though they haven’t disclosed the location, the vision is a center for women and children. “It will be the first time in history that Talbot House will provide emergency shelter and a residential program for women and children. It’s an important milestone that we are very proud of.”


Talbot House is a low-barrier shelter, meaning drug tests aren’t required for those it serves. “We need to be better at showing our God loves by actions,” said Cruz, adding that folks shouldn’t have to fit into a box to receive care. “We have been training our staff towards a more trauma-informed care intervention – crisis de-escalation, harm reduction, trying to see the individuals through the eyes of trauma. If someone is here under stress or pressure, do not expect that they are going to respond to you in a certain way. They don’t trust us. They are here, oppressed by the different stressors of their lives. We are the professionals. We must be prepared to handle that.”


Cara

The Talbot House is a place of refuge for many, a hand up, a new start. Cara has been coming to Talbot House for nine months and has been a resident for seven. She first became homeless when her husband left her. He said he’d paid two months of the rent, but five days later, law enforcement told her she had 15 minutes to get out of the home. After getting out of the hospital, Talbot House was the only place with availability for Cara. “It’s given me stability. It gives me purpose – helping people. It fills me up and makes me feel better,” she said.


EDUCATION AND ADVOCACY

There are a multitude of factors causing homelessness nationwide. The most prevalent issues are the lack of affordable housing and living wages. According to Cruz, they used to see people without income, with severe mental health issues, or struggling with addiction come through their doors. That narrative is shifting. “Now we’re having working families that cannot afford to pay their rent, that are sleeping in their cars,” she said.


“There’s a lot of ignorance surrounding the topic of homelessness,” Cruz said. “We need to unify forces to be able to do an effective job because it is huge, and we are not able to do it alone.” It all starts with understanding the causes and finding evidence-based solutions. People need to understand that it can happen to anyone. We are all one catastrophic life event away from becoming homeless. “Many people believe they’re untouchable,” she said.


Cruz noted the lack of healthcare, mental healthcare, programs for recovery, hunger, and poverty as other causes for people experiencing homelessness. Policymakers must work within these systematic issues and understand the realities of homelessness at the national level. There is a lack of programs locally, too, she said. Though help can be found through organizations like Lighthouse Ministries, the Salvation Army, and Gospel Inc., they each have a set capacity to serve. Each organization has limited resources to help the community.


We must educate our politicians and those in positions of influence about the realities of homelessness and push back on the judgment surrounding it. “We are not going to address the homelessness crisis by ignoring it or […] criminalizing them for being homeless and not having enough programs for them,” said Cruz. “There is a belief that we don’t invest a penny in more homelessness programs. But think about it. We are trying to do the best we can with the resources we have to help you with a community issue.”


According to Cruz, “Ninety-two percent of the people we are seeing in programs are local.” These are our neighbors, our family, and our friends. “We have a huge project as advocates. We are the experts in the matter. We need to raise our voices and continue speaking out for people who can’t speak for themselves.”

Excutive Director Maria Cruz - Photo Credit Glorimar Photography

Cruz is planning a town hall to discuss the topic and educate the community. Representatives from Lighthouse Ministries, Salvation Army, Gospel Inc., and Worth and Purpose founder Travis Doodles will join Cruz. “We’ll start having these conversations nobody wants to have,” she said. The town hall is slated for August.


Though Talbot House Ministries serves about 500 individuals daily through its many programs and resources, “I feel frustrated sometimes as a leader because I cannot do more,” Cruz said. “I try to focus on the transformation of the life of each individual.”


Talbot House Ministries

814 N Kentucky Ave, Lakeland

(863) 687-8475

FB: Talbot House Ministries of Lakeland

IG @talbothouseministries


Photography by Amy Sexson

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