Two Lakeland leaders with a passion to reduce homelessness shared their visions for the paths forward with a crowd of 450 tonight at a Gospel Inc. “friend raiser.” For Mayor Bill Mutz, it was a goal of a city government working alongside social service agencies to lead the transitional homeless into housing and productive lives. For Brian Seeley, founder of Gospel Inc., it was a night to introduce his vision of Gospel Town, a tiny-house community supporting the chronic homeless.
The two visions intersected when Mutz mentioned he had visited Community First! Village in Austin, Texas, Seeley’s model for the kind of village he’d like to create on the outskirts of Lakeland.
“I can report that it’s cleaner than Disney World and the people who live there clean it themselves,” Mutz told a crowd that filled Haus 820.
Seeley debuted a video that explains his vision for Gospel Town. The video, created by Randall Productions, opens by introducing viewers to Michelle, a woman who speaks candidly about others trying to take advantage of her disabilities during her eight years living on the street.
“Michelle is looking for a place to belong, somebody to take her in,” Seeley said when the video ended. “When I think about Michelle and her challenges, I think about this village.”
In Austin, 40 kind-hearted non-homeless people have chosen to live in the tiny house village to assist its residents, Seeley said.
“I want to be Michelle’s neighbor and I want others who feel called to be her her neighbor. The village gives you a space to walk with Michelle for the rest of her life.”
Mutz emphasized that the four- to five-year project to build Gospel Town will be funded with private contributions, not public dollars.
Seeley said he hoped tonight’s event would raise at least $200,000 – the first $100,000 to sustain the nonprofit Gospel Inc.’s existing programs for the homeless in the Parker Street neighborhood and the rest to use as seed money for Gospel Town as fund-raising kicks into high gear.
The Gospel Town Steering Committee is made up of nine Lakeland business and non-profit leaders: Chair Jack Harrell Jr., Harrell’s LLC; Tim Mitchell, Parker Street Ministries; Bill Vass, Publix retiree; Elaine Thompson, Lakeland Regional Health; Ben Stevenson, Lakeland Housing Authority; Steve Scruggs, Lakeland Economic Development Council; Greg Masters, Southern Homes; Greg Riching, Barney’s Pumps; and Seeley.
Gospel Town’s target will be the estimated 100 people in Lakeland categorized as chronically homeless — those who have lived on the street for at least a year and the majority of whom are unable to maintain traditional employment, according to the organization’s literature.
The program aims to find ways to engage the residents in some form of meaningful work — maintenance of the village or on-site workshops and art studios — that will allow them to earn income.
The project is a daunting one, Seeley acknowledges, but he adds, “It’s going to depend on God to enter people’s hearts and make this possible.”