Church houses only such facility in east Pasco
By Kyle LoJacono
From the beginning, Eric Gilbertson wanted to make the Samaritan Project different from other homeless shelters.
“This is my passion,” Gilbertson, 43, said. “I was homeless when I was 15 to 19 years old and saw what it was like at other homeless shelters. I wanted this to be more than just a place to go for a meal. I wanted it to help people find a way to get back on their feet.”
The project started in 2008 and was run out of the Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce, but a space conflict forced a move. Tim Mitchell, senior pastor at Chancey Road Christian Church located at 34921 Chancey Road in Zephyrhills, brought it to the church.
“We see this as what we’re just supposed to do as Christians,” Mitchell said. “The Bible tells us when we offer cool water, shelter, clothing or food in the name of Jesus we are doing his work. So it’s just natural for the church to want to do this. That’s just our passion and motivation behind this.”
Last winter, the project opened as a cold weather shelter for homeless people. Gilbertson said he wanted to continue the project as a homeless shelter after the winter. At first his idea was to start a tent city in the back of the church because he felt that was better than having them do the same in the woods. Then the church agreed to let them use its building at night.
“We opened as a shelter July 25,” Gilbertson said. “We’ve had 46 different people or families stay with us and have 15-22 people on any night. We’ve had 10 single moms stay with us. … They can stay for 14 days and then we ask for a donation of $1 a day, but we don’t turn people away if they don’t have it. Also people use their food stamps to bring food back to the shelter and we count that toward the $1.”
One person who has been at the shelter since it opened is Mike Potter, who has lived in Zephyrhills for 13 years. He has become a volunteer while living there, supervising the area while the other residents sleep.
“All the people who help here, especially Eric, are extremely helpful,” Potter, 41, said. “I’ve never seen someone work as hard as Eric does for the people here. He basically works 24/7 and doesn’t get enough credit for what he does. This place has given me and many others hope.”
When Gilbertson started volunteering with the shelter he was only going to donate about three hours a week, but was at the shelter six to eight hours a day.
Another resident volunteer is Stoney Robertson, who came to the shelter the week it opened. Before that he was living in a tent in the woods.
“I think a lot of people are very nervous about coming to a place like this,” Robertson, 46, said. “People need to be wanted and respected. Here they don’t make you feel like a second-class citizen just because you don’t have a home. Really this is the Ritz-Carlton of shelters.”
Both Potter and Robertson attend the church’s services. Gilbertson said while they try to steer the residents toward God, they do not make it a requirement.
The shelter opens each night from 5:30 p.m.-8:30 a.m. Once people check in, they cannot leave and return to prevent people from coming back intoxicated, Gilbertson said. Those at the shelter get a dinner and breakfast plus snacks and drinks available all night. There is also a TV with movies, games and books.
There is a separate room for women and men. Children can stay with either parent and married couples can stay together in a common room.
“Before we let someone stay we do a simple background check to make sure they don’t have any outstanding warrants or anything like that,” Gilbertson said. “For the volunteers it’s a more thorough background check.”
The project is currently looking for a location closer to downtown Zephyrhills. Mitchell thinks a central location could help more people in the future. For now, those who stay the night are driven to Alice Hall Community Center at Zephyr Park the next day by volunteer Brian Lavender.
“We want them to find a job during the day,” Gilbertson said. “We have a computer that I’m getting firewalled so they can look for a job. … To me we’re like the center place where people can come for help. We give them a roof, food, support and then find them help from other places.”
Mitchell said the food costs about $500 a month. Add the costs of electricity and water and the total to keep the shelter going at its current level will be $8,000-$10,000 a year. However, the project is expanding its services.
Gilbertson said they will soon open a new kitchen to make a larger variety of food faster for the residents. They also recently installed two showers. He added that when the cold weather returns they will be able to house about 200 people with the space the project has.
Gilbertson said donations of supplies and money are helpful for the cause, but the biggest need is for volunteers. He said he does not need anyone to stay overnight, just mainly to help serve dinner and cleanup after. Anyone interested should call Gilbertson at (813) 810-8670. Donations can also be dropped off at the church office around the back of the main building.
While Potter and Robertson are still down on their luck, they are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
“My goal is to get my own place,” Potter said. “I’m looking for a job, but the tough part is I don’t have a car. While I’m still looking, I’m feeling better about my chances.”
Robertson said of his goals, “I want to be accountable. I just want to pay this kindness forward to someone else who is down on their luck once I get a job and a place to live.”