Home is where your story begins and when you don’t have one, it’s challenging to consider the possibilities, envision the future, and make dreams a reality.
Peace River Community Housing Partners (PORCH), which “advocates for the development of safe, functional, affordable, sustainable housing that meets the needs of the people in our community,” is helping stories begin by changing lives in Charlotte County. The organization works with families who live below the poverty line and military veterans to find appropriate housing.
Devin Burgess, who recently moved into a PORCH home, along with his four children, struggles to find the words to express his thanks for the organization’s much-needed support.
“I don’t think I can put that thanks into words, to be honest,” he said. “For them to volunteer their time and money to do this… it just means the world, not just to me but to my kids. If they could see the looks on my kids’ faces when we got the house, or when we’ve been to the park that’s nearby, and they’ve had ice cream, and we come home…
“Just thank you. That’s not enough, but I don’t know how else to say it. I just don’t. You don’t know what this has meant to my family and me. I’m just really appreciative and happy I was able to find this program and be part of it.”
Burgess discovered the program through the Charlotte County Public School’s (CCPS) “Keep Kids In School” project. Renee Rebhan, the Homeless Education and Foster Care Liaison for CCPS, where Burgess’s kids go to school, was instrumental in getting the family into their own home. The houses were provided to PORCH by the Charlotte County Government and have been renovated with the help of various community partners and volunteers.
The school program has a term limit, and once the assistance period is complete, if the parent(s) has been able to make the situation sustainable, they can remain in the home, which Burgess has done.
“It was Ms. Rebhan who got me in contact with JFCS (Jewish Family & Children’s Services), and they told me about the program,” said Burgess. “They got me started with the paperwork and got me signed up. That led me to Ms. Denise (Dull, Director of Landlord Engagement with the Gulf Coast Partnership) and Ms. Becky (Madsen, Punta Gorda Housing Authority). The whole process probably took three or fourth months from the time we started until it was time to look for a house, so it was pretty quick.”
Before he learned about PORCH, Burgess had no idea any kind of initiative was available to help him and his family.
“I was very surprised,” he said. “I didn’t know there was anything like this out there. I had never heard of JFCS. I knew about the Housing Authority, but I didn’t know anything about the Gulf Coast Partnership. And, I’m not going to lie, when it started, I didn’t think it would be something I would get.”
Burgess said seeing the house for the first time was almost overwhelming.
“We had looked for houses for a while and couldn’t find one, even after everything went through, and I got approved,” he said. “Then I got with Ms. Denise, and we got the house. It was one of the best feelings I’ve felt in a long time. When we got there, they were telling me they had more stuff for me to go and get (for the house), and I was like, ‘I just want to stay right here and enjoy this house.’”
Having a home of his own has significantly changed Burgess’s outlook on life.
“It’s given me a little bit of leeway,” he said. “I mean, I was doing pool construction and felt I had topped out on salary because I had been doing it so long. Thanks to being here and them working with me on rent, it gave me the opportunity to find something better. I knew staying in pools, I wouldn’t make enough money to sustain my family. But getting the house helped me take chances – and I found a really good job.”
“It’s a good job in maintenance and restoration, and I’m going to go back to school so I can become a lineman. This house gave me the opportunity I needed – that little bit of help to get me where I needed to be.”
The new house has also been a tremendous hit with his children, who range in age from 4 to 12.
“They love it,” said Burgess. “They love having their own rooms, the neighborhood is great, there are kids for them to play with. They play basketball outside every day. You’d think I lived alone because my three boys are always outside playing, and I’ve also got my little girl. They really do love it.
“They have stability now. We can do things like movie nights and go to the park. It’s made a big impact on all of us.”
What would Burgess tell others about PORCH and how it’s changed his life and outlook?
“I would tell them if they’re in a bad spot, it’s a good program to help them get straight,” he said. “I was a single dad with four kids, and I didn’t have time to find a new or better career, and this has given me time to better myself. It’s taken the stress off, and now I should be able to sustain my family by myself. That’s my goal; that’s my number one thing that I want to do.”
(The process) “has been so worth it – especially if you have kids, you should go for it. It’s a life-changing opportunity for you – that’s what it’s been for me. I didn’t think it was going to happen, but you just have to have faith and move forward.”
Had it not been for PORCH, Burgess says he and his family would probably have had to leave Florida.
“Honestly, I was thinking about moving out of state,” he said. “I didn’t want to, and I was in pool construction and made pretty good money. I didn’t think I could find much work, but I was thinking about moving up north because that’s where my parents are. But I would have had to start over completely. This house, though, it’s changed everything – and it’s helped me save face a little bit.”
Dull, who works with Gulf Coast Partnership, is a volunteer for PORCH and is passionate about what it has been able to accomplish.
“I think everybody needs a home, and I think everything starts at home,” she said. “It’s difficult to be stable in anything else in life if you don’t have one. I’ve known Angela (Hogan, CEO of the Gulf Coast Partnership) for a very long time, and I saw all the work she did with people experiencing homelessness, and I was impressed.”
“I was in payroll processing at the time, and she asked if I could come and work with her. And I’ve been passionate about it ever since.”
With the Giving Challenge, a 24-hour giving event coming up on April 26, Dull is hopeful that community members will continue to support PORCH.
“The Charlotte County average income is not very high,” she said. “Rents are going up, and housing is being bought, and we don’t have multi-family units and apartment buildings like a lot of other places. We just don’t have the right kind of structures that people need to live in. We’re a tourist town with a different kind of need and a different kind of revenue base, so it’s almost a perfect storm as far as housing goes.”
“This is a one-day challenge, and it’s a great opportunity for nonprofits to receive matching donations, so we really hope that everyone will take part in it and continue to support us.”
To learn more about PORCH or to make a donation, please visit https://porchfl.org/. To participate in the Giving Challenge, visit https://www.givingchallenge.org/organizations/peace-river-community-housing-partners-inc.