JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- He's called "The Homeless Teacher" on his Homeless and Hungry Facebook page. And now Thomas Rebman is smiling as he responds to the comments he got on social media with his criticism of a how Jacksonville, especially one local shelter, treats the homeless.
Rebman spent 75 days visiting nine Florida cities to live the homeless life. A former teacher from the Orlando area and a military veteran, Rebman has adopted the issue as his personal passion when an assignment to his students blossomed into his own project.
Rebman called the treatment of the homeless at the City Rescue Mission "atrocious." He said requiring the homeless, for example, to turn in their belongings at night, including their cell phones, is "inhumane." He also says it's "unconstitutional" to take away people's items, even if they're returned in the morning.
City Rescue Mission Executive Director Penny Kievet says she disagrees with Rebman. She says the mission treats every homeless "guest" with empathy and compassion, and it's for their own protection that belongings are checked for emergency overnight stays. She also explains that the guests' clothes are washed for free and returned to them the next morning. She says it was the guests themselves who asked for a "no cell phone policy" because they wanted some peace and quiet at night.
Rebman, however, says forcing people to follow such strict rules including wearing hospital scrubs--even though they're clean--makes humans feel like "prisoners."
That disagreement sparked much debate on FirstCoastNews.com when FCN first aired the story. One social media post called Rebman "a well-meaning idiot."
Rebman says maybe he is a "well-meaning idiot" but he's happy he's gotten the conversation about homelessness started. He says that's just fine with him. In fact, he says, his mission is to spark more community empathy and understanding about homelessness and inspire communities to look at models he thinks are working well around the country.
Rebman says the "old shelter model" is not the best way to handle the homeless population. He's in favor of establishing affordable, permanent housing, especially for what he calls "the chronic homeless," people who have mental issues, such at PTSD, the homeless over 60, and people with such serious disabilities they cannot become employed.
He is giving his observations to a governor's task force on homelessness in Tallahassee this week. His report includes the grades he's given to each city, none higher than a "C." He gave Jacksonville a "D," saying the entire community needs more empathy towards homeless people.
Kievet says she disagrees with the "D" for Jacksonville. She says she has invited Rebman to come inside and visit the CRM and see its successful programs, such as LifeBuilders.
One graduate of that program, a man named Clyde, says he was in prison six times. He lived on the streets and had to deal with roaches crawling on his face. He came to the CRM and appreciated the rules because he realized he needed a new structure in his life.
Now Clyde beams and says, "I'm detail manager." He is employed at a local KIA dealership and credits CRM with turning around his life.
Kievet also points out that the Jacksonville is making big strides to help get the homeless off the streets and into good living conditions and employment.
Dawn Gilman, CEO of Emergency Services and Homeless Coalition of NE Florida, says the the "Point-in-Time" survey found 4,000 people on the streets. The latest numbers show that number reduced by 50 percent, she says.
Both Rebman and Kievet and other homeless advocates say they are all striving to help the homeless. They may not agree on the methods, but they all appreciate attention to the issue -- and possible solutions.