NORTH TAMPA – If people are truly willing to turn their lives around, there is no reason for them to be living on the streets, says Dr. Tom Atchison.
Atchison is the pastor of New Life Pentecostal Church and founder of New Beginnings of Tampa, a nonprofit organization that provides transitional housing and a homeless recovery program for unaccompanied women and men. Many of those requiring the nonprofit's services are veterans.
The program also offers emergency food and shelter on a daily basis to those in need depending on space availability.
The ministry, on average, serves more than 200 people daily, according to Atchison.
“We feed more people than Metropolitan Ministries and house more people than the Salvation Army,” he said. “But we're not in the public eye.”
The faith-based transitional program addresses each individual's issues such as mental health problems, substance abuse, family and social relationships and unemployment.
“We have a 97 percent rate of success,” said Atchison, who noted “success” is based on the fact that six months after they are released from the program they are not homeless once again.
Many in the program are veterans referred by counselors at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa.
“There should be no vets living on the street unless they refuse treatment,” Atchison said. “The men who really want help aren't out panhandling.”
While soup kitchens and the like fill an immediate need for the homeless, Atchison believes in the long run it enables homeless people to simply continue the drinking and drugging that got them there in the first place.
“Like the worm on the hook, I feed them food as a vehicle to reach out to them and show them the love of God,” said Atchison, who earned his doctorate in theology from Berean College.
The 15-year-old program receives some federal funding through an Access to Recovery grant as well by way of a portion of the participants' benefits, including their monthly allotments from the Veterans Administration and Housing and Urban Development vouchers.
The profits from sales at New Beginnings' three thrift stores and inhouse print shop also benefit the program.
Atchison said he's found no shortage of jobs for those in the New Beginnings' program, generally because word travels quickly about their good work ethic.
The Tampa Bay Lightning organization – which named Atchison a Community Hero in February 2013 and awarded him $50,000 that went toward the program – employs many of New Beginnings' workers.
“Having a job is a major part of their recovery,” Atchison said.
He advocates that participants stay in the program a minimum of six months, “three to get clean and another three to get jobs and stay straight.”
Some stay in the program for more than a year and some with terminal conditions never leave.
For his work in transforming the lives of hundreds of people who once were homeless, Atchison also received Bank of America's 2009 Community Hero Award.
Jeff Luddeke, 51, credits New Beginnings for saving his life.
Upon his release from jail in 2004, after serving time for a drug-related charge, the veteran had nowhere to go except to the James A. Haley hospital as an inpatient in the psychiatric care unit.
It was there he learned about New Beginnings, a program that set him on the right track. Ultimately, he was named the executive director of Liberty Manor, a nonprofit home for formerly homeless veterans.
He no longer serves in that capacity but he continues to be clean and sober and is gainfully employed with another entity.
Luddeke spends much of his free time as a New Beginnings volunteer and as an active member of “Pastor Tom's” church.
“The people here are like my family,” he said.
Reginald “Reggie” Burroughs, 42, entered the program 10 years ago with a bipolar illness. He has since gotten that issue under control. He also completed Bible college and has stayed on as New Beginnings' spiritual liaison.
“They were there for me and they transformed my life,” said Burroughs, who attends Hillsborough Community College in pursuit of a liberal arts degree.
“Pastor Tim is a great man of God and I love him more as a father figure,” he said.
Adequate funding for the New Beginnings ministry, Atchison said, is a constant struggle.
“We're still basically operating as a mom and pop organization even though we're doing so much for so many people,” he said.
To learn more about the program and how to contribute call (813) 971-6961.
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at [email protected]