Dr. Bob Bushong, former associate pastor of First United Methodist Church of Orlando, remembers the day when his six-year-old son asked him a question as they walked through the courtyard of the downtown Orlando church. At that time, in the mid-1980s, groups of homeless people gathered there to sleep under the portico for shelter.

“He asked me, ‘Why don’t we invite some of them home with us, tonight? I have a bunk bed that I could share and we have an extra bedroom that only gets used once a year. So, why can’t we let them stay?’ I tried to explain as best as I could that it wouldn’t work, but I loved the fact that he thought of it,” Bushong recalls.

“There was another night when we were walking around the church campus and it was a little chilly outside. My son pointed at the fellowship hall and said, ‘You have a key to that room. We should let them inside.’ It was that night that I couldn’t sleep. The next day, I had a meeting with the senior pastor, some staff, and members of the church about the possibility of opening up the fellowship hall.”

After a series of meetings, on June 1, 1986, the church decided to open their doors to 80 people to offer overnight shelter and meals.

He says, “We would serve an easy dinner of sandwiches, fruit, and cookies, and stay the night, and in the morning serve them breakfast. It was simple. They would bring their blankets and their cardboard and lay them down on the floor.”

When the word spread in the community about what First United Methodist Church of Orlando was doing, other inter-faith organizations and businesses joined in and signed up for nights to volunteer and donate meals. They also hired a social worker to provide resources to the people who lined up every night.

“I remember, about two months into it, I was twisting some people’s arms to get them to volunteer for the overnight shift. There was this guy who was a good friend of mine who told me, ‘Okay, I will do this once as a favor to you.’ In the morning, while they were serving breakfast, I visited because I wanted to thank him and process the experience with him. He was really eager to see me when I got there. He pointed to a guy across the room and said, ‘You see that man over there? I was in high school with him and we connected last night. I heard his story and realized that it could be me.’”

“He signed up to volunteer periodically, at least once a month. He had this image of these dirty, filthy, homeless people, and then he met this guy, got his story and realized it could happen to him.” Bushong adds, “The program was great for the church. It really pulled people together.”

In the beginning stages, First United Methodist Church sought help from Fred Ward, the Coalition’s first President, broadening the vision of what the homeless shelter could look like in the future. He began a community-based steering committee to find more permanent solutions.

“He was one of many key people who had the idea of doing more than just getting them off the streets. Fred started to work on incorporating a coalition of community members to address homelessness in a more effective way,” Bushong says.

On February 27, 1987, the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida became a 501[c][3] nonprofit organization.

For the past three decades, through the support of the community, the Coalition has impacted nearly 120,000 lives by providing shelter, food and transformational programs and services.

Although the location and buildings have changed over the years, we are inspired by the same vision of providing HOPE to our neighbors in need.

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