ORLANDO, Fla. – Take equal parts Dr. Phil and Mother Teresa, stir in a youth tainted by dysfunction, drugs and living on the streets, and you have the man behind one of the fastest-growing, most successful homeless programs in Central Florida.
Pastor Scott Billue – a high-speed, tough-love 50-year-old with a boy-band haircut – is founder of the 21/2-year-old Matthew’s Hope program in Winter Garden, Fla., run with the support of 50 churches, hundreds of volunteers and scores of local businesses.
Sprawled behind the Church of Christ of West Orange, the operation began as a freeze shelter where those who lived in the woods could seek refuge from the nighttime cold. Now it’s a full-time operation with 1,500 clients. At Matthew’s Hope, the homeless can get groceries, clothing, medical and mental-health care and eye exams. They also can tend an organic garden and get help finding jobs.
Most unusual, though, is the ministry’s detailed accountability system that allows those who do work there to earn “pastor bucks” that are exchanged for supplies. A sleeping bag, for instance, is 20 pastor bucks. A new bicycle with a lock and a bike light? Two hundred. Lunch with the pastor himself at a nice restaurant? Forty – and, buyers say, a bargain.
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After all, Billue himself earns no salary.
“I spent nights crying and crying and wondering why people turned their back on me,” recalled Michael Russ, a 51-year-old Army veteran who worked for the city of Apopka, Fla., before losing his job, his wife and his home. “Then I found this place. I love coming here. I love working here. Pastor Scott really cares about you. They all care about you. And working gives you the feeling that you have a job again, you know? It makes you feel like somebody.”
Tina White, now 52 and living in Alabama with her husband, Drew, agrees. The couple came to Matthew’s Hope soon after it opened, when they were staying in a half-finished home without functional plumbing or electricity. At the time, Drew, who had worked in construction, couldn’t find odd jobs to keep them afloat.
“They paid for my husband to get his identification card, got him work boots and even gave him a bicycle so he could get back and forth to a job – because that was the only way he had,” Tina said. “They don’t just toss a few crumbs at you and say, ‘See you next week.’ They help you get off your behind and get your life back.”
Today, Drew is working full time in a grocery-store meat department, and Tina is studying to be a paralegal.
Joe Gick, a pilot for Southwest Airlines, will tell you it’s more than the accountability system that makes Matthew’s Hope work, although he’s a big fan of accountability.
When he learned about the ministry through his sons’ Christian school, Foundation Academy, he decided to see what it was about for himself.
“Once I met Pastor Scott, my life was changed,” said Gick, who spent a week’s vacation volunteering there recently. “Everything he does is on the premises of the Gospel of Matthew, and even though I had read the Bible before, it made me really study those verses. It’s not that Jesus said you should help the less fortunate, he said you must help.
“At the end of the week, I said to Scott, ‘Damn you for shining a light on all this.’ And he started laughing. Because once you know, you can’t turn away. You see a man who has been homeless himself, who has been a drug addict, and now he has rolled up his sleeves and is living the Bible in the trenches.”
Billue’s own background is one reason the tough-love approach works. He knows what he’s asking of people to quit drugs and work their way out of homelessness because he has done it.
A high school dropout, he worked his way through seminary school before being hired – and fired – by three churches for his habit of challenging congregants to walk the walk. Six years ago, he started the nondenominational Next Community Church, which has about 100 members.
He earns no salary there, either.