The Friendship House – Immokalee’s True Heart

Since 1987 Immokalee Friendship House has been providing shelter and food to homeless and migrant Immokalee residents. Founded on the principles of love and discipline, the Friendship House’s goal is to help their residents become independent by coaching them for job interviews, providing them with a list of available jobs, and helping them find affordable housing. The Immokalee Friendship House promoted the same values as another organization, St. Matthews House, and in 2008, under the direction of Reverend Vann Ellison, both organizations joined forces.

Reverend Vann R. Ellison, President and CEO of the St. Matthew Organization. (Submitted photo/Lewis Perkins)

Reverend Vann R. Ellison, President and CEO of the St. Matthew Organization was a former Prison/ Jail Chaplin who felt a calling to inspire homeless people all over Collier County. Ellison points out that, although the two organizations have merged, there are still differences between St. Matthew’s House and The Immokalee Friendship House. The primary difference is that The Immokalee Friendship House has residents who are migrant, so they accommodate more families. Three rooms of its 44 beds, are reserved for families. Because of the growing number of children living in poverty, The Immokalee Friendship House focuses on giving parent’s the skills to become independent. They also help “mom and dad get childcare” but unfortunately 95% of these children do not have a father leaving the burden of raising a family to the mothers. Additionally, The Immokalee Friendship House reaches out to other migrants in the community by offering free English classes and participate I food distribution programs to area churches and agencies.

Reverend Ellison points out that Immokalee Friendship House is more than just a charitable organization. The goal of the Friendship House is to create a self-dependent, law abiding citizens. In order to do this, residents are required to sign a contract that requires them to do chores, and stay sober. In order to help them be successful, The Immokalee Friendship House has case managers that talk with residents about their problems such as troubles they may have with fighting an addiction.

The secret to their success for the past couple of decades is due to the fact that the program provides structure and shows each of its residents love, regardless of their past. Ellison states that “love is the key to motivate them”. He further states that “the number one cause of homelessness is being alone and not having a family to fall back on.” The Friendship house provides a family where residents help support each other. However, Ellison is quick to point out that by showing too much love the residents will get too comfortable and take advantage of the system. This is why discipline adds to the structure. Each of the residents are required to do chores, however, if they refuse, they are written up. If they are continuously written up, they are removed from the program. Also, residents are routinely checked for drug or alcohol use. If they test positive, they are kicked out of the program and cannot return for thirty days. “There has to be an equal balance between love and discipline in order for the program to be successful.” Too much discipline would discourage the residents.

All residents are required find a job, work, and abide by the clear expectations. In order to further enhance their independence, The Immokalee Friendship House offers Bilingual Alcohol Anonymous (AA), and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) programs where addicts get help and support each other. In order to help the residents find strength, the program offers Bible studies that are led by Reverend Ellison himself. Ellison uses humor and past experiences to relate the scriptures so that a recovering addict can find hope through God. However, Ellison points out that although he loves connecting with the residents and sharing God’s word, the community has a fear of the population they serve. Instead of seeing these “Wonderful people, sharing God’s grace” the community judges the residents without knowing them.

Reverend Ellison finds volunteers/ workers by speaking at many events, but the majority of the workers are former residents. In as few as 65 days, (the average stay per resident), Ellison is proud of the program’s 87% success rate. He gleams when he tells stories of “protocol sons” who, after leaving the program, returned and became independent and have families. To further entice their residents, The Immokalee Friendship House offers 100% scholarships to Immokalee Technical College. Thanks to Reverend Ellison and his many workers, there is hope for people who would otherwise been seen as frightening people living on the streets of Immokalee.

Lewis Perkins is special to the Immokalee Bulletin and can be reached at ibnews@newszap.com

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