Network guides struggling families
Joel Hunter focuses on combining resources to strengthen nonprofit
When homeless people come to Altamonte Chapel, the congregation welcomes them to worship and offers the help it can: a meal, a ride, maybe some new clothes.
But the small church doesn’t have the resources to get them off the streets permanently. That’s why it joined the new Community Resource Network, a nonprofit that seeks to harness the collective power of the Central Florida religious community to aid homeless families.
“As an individual congregation, we’re limited,” the Rev. Robert Melhorn said. “We’re well-intentioned and goodhearted, but we are not experts by any stretch of the imagination.”
The driving force behind Community Resource Network is the Rev. Joel Hunter, who preached his last sermon earlier this month as senior pastor at Northland, A Church Distributed. After 32 years, Hunter, 69, stepped down from the megachurch in Longwood to devote his time to a long-held passion: helping the homeless.
“I always had a heart for
“The faith community is an untapped resource with the moral compunction to help.”
Joel Hunter, founder and board chairman of Community Resource Network
those who were marginalized and left out,” Hunter said in an interview at his new office at Z88.3 Christian radio station in Altamonte Springs.
Hunter, founder and board chairman of Community Resource Network, and CEO Dawn Haynes, a former sales and marketing director for the Walt Disney Co. and British Airways, have been meeting with churches, synagogues, temples and other community members to spread the word.
“There are a lot of resources out there, and they individually excel in certain areas and fall behind in others,” said Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida and a member of the network. “We are so fragmented that each of us doesn’t know what the other is doing.”
The network started as a nonprofit arm of Northland in 2007 but was spun off in July into a separate charity. It got a boost from Orlando attorney John Morgan, a prospective gubernatorial candidate who, with his wife, Ultima — now a board member — donated $1 million because they believe in Hunter and his mission.
Hunter’s experience and contacts in the faith, business and social communities will continue to grow the network and identify gaps in services, board treasurer Freddie Clayton said.
“One thing I’m confident about is that the government cannot solve the homeless problem,” said Clayton, president of Union Rescue Mission in Orlando.
Hunter, who was a spiritual adviser to former President Barack Obama, gained national prominence when he spoke at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. His office is decorated with art and photos, including a picture of himself with Obama in the Oval Office, a pencil drawing of Mother Teresa, sheet music to “The Lord’s Prayer” and a 19th-century cross made of railroad ties.
The Ohio native is well-known locally for his outreach to the LGBT community after the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the forums Northland hosted during his tenure on topics including capital punishment, gun violence, sex trafficking and homeless children. He continues to preach as a guest pastor at churches and retirement homes.
One of the tools the network uses is a database of resources to help the needy, whether money to pay an electric bill, a ride to a job interview, employment training, budgeting tips, affordable housing or a baby sitter during work hours. Created with a gift from Jim Seneff, founder and executive chairman of CNL Financial Group, the database can put volunteers and churches in touch with nonprofits, religious organizations and government agencies that need assistance.
It also can help churches find out who genuinely needs a leg up and who is simply going from congregation to congregation seeking a handout, said Carmem Carmo, leader of the grace ministry at First Baptist Orlando. The network plans to focus on families who, with some assistance, can break the cycle of homelessness.
“We want people who want to change their life for the sake of their families or … themselves,” said Hunter, who also is board chairman of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness.
Community Resource Network intends to train volunteers to provide continued encouragement as the families work toward self-sufficiency, getting to know them in a way that overburdened caseworkers usually cannot.
His wife of 45 years, Becky, is by his side in the effort.
“The faith community is an untapped resource with the moral compunction to help,” Hunter said.
Joel Hunter left his job as senior pastor at Northland, A Church Distributed, and started a nonprofit network of churches to help homeless families. “I always had a heart for those who were marginalized and left out,” he said.