Cassie Matthew’s personal journey…
Why did we Start Hands Up Ministries?
I was a missionary (many call us vacationaries) to the poor; I (Cassie) took yearly trips to foreign countries (started in ‘96) to help out where I could. After the earthquake in Haiti I went three times, the last large team I lead was about 18 people, it was devastating to watch, but harder to think about we spent well over $20,000 to get there. Money we could have been given to a NGO and they would have known what to do with such gifts. Or perhaps employ folks or give them much needed healthcare and education spots.. But no, we Americans want to feel and see the devastation like a car wreck on the side of the road. After my Third trip with a little bumps and bruises and a HUGE learning curve, I decided I need to listen to God more clearly and do what I can on a more committed level here in the states.
In 2007 I was helping at a local food pantry at Northminster Church, My friends husband was dying of cancer and needed support because her and her husband ran the food bank. So many loved Carl, and his heart, we remembered that. So my friend Terry & I would go to the food bank and over time we realized how delightful our friends were who were coming in the back door to creep out with their one or two bags of food. No one spoke, just thanks and here is your food. We quickly decided there was a “hospitality piece” missing and (Terry’s idea) began serving lemonade and cookies….while our friends waited in a depressing line to get their free food in humiliation. We added chairs for comfort, opened the doors earlier to get out of the elements and began the morning off with a prayer of God’s provisions. That went on for a year, we graduated to Panera’s and Starbucks coffee which our neighbors loved and after three years of free hospitality and prayer, we decided this journey was over. Every Friday night and every Sat. morning of pastries and coffee became a burden only few would bear. That journey was over.
One day in the midst of handing out food, I had decided to bring in a few shirts, my husband got free shirts from Phillip Morris from doing an event and he didn’t want or need them any longer. I placed them on a table and ZIP…they were gone. HMMM I think..Maybe there is a need. So sure enough in 2008, Northminster got on board and decided to allow the 4 sat in advent to be an open “Free Market” everyone brought all their wares and we open the Worship center, prayed before we opened the doors and four Sat. in a row we served over four hundred folks needing “Christmas items, linens, house wares and clothing, our leftovers.”
After Christmas I knew I could not keep that pace up, Northminster agreed to give me space to open what is now called “The FreeMarket” where we were open every Sat. to the public, while getting their free food, they can shop with ease for items they may need for their families. No restrictions, “just take what you need” After three years of every w/e it became harder for me to give up every sat. to give away free stuff without really answering the real questions..”What is it that you really need?” Why are the friends here every week end getting more and more stuff, some folks if we let them would come all three Sat. We quickly decided once a month rules applied, just like the food pantry.
Throughout the three years volunteers waxed and waned, some came for a season, some came for a day, but most over time were not coming back to “help the poor” however the donations continued. I decided to start probing our friends and asking more thought provoking questions through a survey I had put together asking the “whys?” “What ways were your needs not being met that you would need to come here week after week.
After careful research and years of asking probing questions, building trust with our friends they began to tell me the truth…”We want jobs.” “We want to be heard” “We need affordable housing.” There were many other issues that rose to the top but I decided to try to tackle a few I could on my level. Many did not have proper documentation, many (most) live below the poverty line, under $20,000 per year. Many had healthcare issues like dentistry that were not being addressed. Many had slumlords that did not care of the conditions of their homes. They, unlike me, had no voice of advocacy in which they felt empowered to speak up, for fear of retaliation in covert manners, Being kicked out, no access to dental care, no id, no services…Many of my friends live in boarding houses, owned and rented by slum lords who know exactly what they can charge, based on someone’s income or disability, which after paying bills, they have zero money left. And the cycle continues.
We offered Job workshops for one year with a partnership through Partners for Families North Side, the friends have no idea how to “go online to apply for a job”. Even for me it was painful, but as soon as they wrote “I have a felony” I knew secretly, they were not going to get a job. Very few even got call backs, but we continued to build resumes, send out applications ‘till even I became discouraged.
I knew at that point WE, HUM, had to make jobs available for those who really wanted to work, but without a home, most were just living in “survivor” mode.
JT (my husbad)& I began the process of our own 501©3 in 2008, without much support, most saying it’s costly and arduous, it was anything but. We became Hands Up Ministries in 2008, and our road began at a very fast pace. JT & I decided we had met hundreds of friends over the last three years, we knew building relationships was by far THE MOST IMPORTANT PART…From our friendships we will help ONE at a time. So we forged on. We decided the only way these folks could have a reasonable housing rent was to buy the homes ourselves, rehab them, give our friends minor jobs, little money in their pocket and continue to find viable folks, who wanted homes, yet could work and pay their bills and rent the home in dignity. Our promise was to never raise the rent (unless you brought others in), and maintain a beautiful home for them. We liquidated our own IRA (we also were making NO money in this vehicle), since we had no money in the nonprofit, and we thought if we became the example others would follow our lead. We paid our taxes for liquidating and we have NOT regretted a moment since. There have been a few trials; I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that. We rented a home to a woman who had drug issues (that she stated she was done) and she was a prostitute and that was over for her..I knew her, I loved her for her, just like God taught me, but it didn’t work out. She was evicted after three months with no change in sight. We learned from it, but for the cost of a car payment we were willing to take the risk because we felt like she was a worthy child of God. And she still is, but she cannot get her life together. We have not heard from her since her evictions. We quickly rented the house out again, to a mother living in the projects (we knew and met her through the freemarket) she was a community volunteer and we carefully screened her and her background. She said she didn’t want to raise her two daughters any longer in the projects, would we please give her a chance. She struggled making the monthly rent, we quickly worked with her and her finances, and she now pays bimonthly and has not paid a late payment since. She is thriving.
We went on to purchase three other homes one for cash, the other we took out a loans for, none of our homes are exceeded $50,00, so we could pay the mortgage and they could have affordable rent, $550.00 each. We have raised one rent due to non compliance of the lease, still affordable, yet because of poor choices on the leaser, we had to make changes. We are now looking to sell that property due to personal reasons on part of the tenants.
Overall, we have had a better experience, life changing, God led life. We are kind and considerate with boundaries that a parent would give. We continue to meet friends everyday who pray we will buy another home, meanwhile we save money for our non profit to be able to purchase a home within the ministry through private donations.
That takes me to date: in December of 2011, we purchased our first HUM home, 5 bedrooms, $24,000, 2600sq feet of property; we are in the throes of rehab. Every single pipe was broke, every faucet and drain leaked, but the bright side is we have employed EVERY contractor (9 to date) from within the city of our friends we have met over the last five years. We do not hire drug addicts or active alcoholics. Many have past felony records with amazing skills that have been labeled “unemployable”, but yet they are men who deserve a chance and a wage with dignity. They have served time, they have paid their dues, but there is no grace for felons in this society, we aim to change that. One house at a time. One family at a time.
We have been given much; we are sharing what has been given to us and trying to make a dent in the poverty cycle through affordable housing. Our dream for this five bedroom house is a Transitional home for men/women coming out of recovery homes with no place to live. They will need support and they will need it for a long time, we will walk beside them, with whomever wants to share our walk. All people were created in the image of God, some of us have come from poor unlovable backgrounds, scarred for life which gives us a very less than desirable chance in life, we all have a purpose on this earth…I have finally found my gift; loving others through affordable housing and through building relationships…we call it Hands up Ministries.
There is more on the horizon, we want to open a thrift store and make everything so cheap but at least a nominal fee so that the free hand out cycle stops, it will employ folks and it will give us sustainable revenue to continue our journey of affordable homes, without government grants or loans. We have educated over selves continually over the last five years and learned we can do things better, more efficient less damaging to the poor we are trying to serve. There are many unanswered questions, but most of all we have educated ourselves on the “barriers” of poverty.” What it looks and feels like to walk in the friends shoes..And it’s no picnic. We will make a difference, we were made for that, helping without hurting the poor. We want to work on restoring dignity and self worth in a positive accountable way.
Won’t you come and walk beside us? We are praying for you.
How can you help?