Gospel Inc.’s purchase of a mobile home park near downtown Lakeland, funded by the federal CARES Act, is the first step in its long-term plans for Gospel Town, a housing and work complex for former transients, according to founder and Director Brian Seeley.

The 37 mobile homes and cottages at 1120-1140 E. Lemon St. were formerly called Royal Oak Estates. They are being turned into Gospel Village, a housing and work community for people experiencing homelessness who have been diagnosed with or at risk of contracting COVID-19. Homes should be ready for residents to move in next month, Seeley said.

When COVID-19 is no longer a threat, Gospel Village will remain a housing and work community, he said.

“The purchase of this property is a phenomenal first step towards achieving this goal because people will continue to need a home and community well beyond the risks posed by COVID-19,” Seeley said.

Gospel Inc. received a $1 million federal grant to purchase the property as part of a federal program to expand physical facilities of agencies serving COVID-19 patients. The grant was approved by the Polk County Commission last month, and the property was purchased Feb. 3.

As its board secretary, Craig Mozhdehi has witnessed Gospel Inc. expand its services from hand-delivering meals in its early days to now offering marketable job-training, growing its services and staff.

Gospel Inc.’s work since 2011, assisting Lakeland’s homeless population find housing and jobs, has led to strong to relationships with the staff and those it serves, Mozhdehi said, lending to the community spirit Gospel Village aims to foster.

Gospel Inc.’s new property at the corner of Lemon Street and Lake Parker Avenue

Gospel Village could ultimately grow to 54 units on the Lemon Street property, Seeley said. It allows for the opportunity to get better acquainted with those it helps, which aids in the process of learning who is suited for long-term housing, he said.

“This village is a first step and first phase towards what we as a community could potentially provide for many more people experiencing homelessness that need a loving, purpose-filled place to call home,” he said.

Seeley introduced his concept for a larger Gospel Town at a fund-raiser in October 2018 that yielded several hundred thousand dollars in donations.

At the time, he said 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.

An anticipated purchase of a large parcel for Gospel Town fell through, Seeley said. The Lemon Street “opportunity presented itself, which transformed our vision a bit. This is a good opportunity because it fits where we are at as an organization and will pave the way for expansion,” he said. With its size, the current project feels more like a village than a town, Seeley said, so the name was adjusted.

Gospel Inc. 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, Seeley explained when he introduced the Gospel Town concept in 2018.

The idea for Gospel Town was sparked after Seeley and some of his supporters visited the tiny-house community of  Community First! Village in Austin, Texas, which provides job opportunities for people who had been chronically homeless.

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