Orlando Union Rescue Mission expansion would serve more homeless families

One of the oldest homeless service providers in Central Florida has won preliminary city approval of a plan that would double the size of its campus.

Among other things, the Orlando Union Rescue Mission plans to build 52 transitional apartments on its main campus in Orlando on West Washington Street, along the southern shore of Rock Lake.

The nonprofit, faith-based agency is perhaps best known for its iconic men's facility on West Central Boulevard in Parramore, which bears a 30-foot neon rooftop cross that's been named a city landmark. But it also operates a larger facility for women, children and families just more than a mile to the west, and that's the location marked for expansion.

Orlando Union Rescue Mission owns nearly 16 acres along West Washington Street, but most of it remains undeveloped.

On one end of the property is its Women and Children facility, which takes in families, women and single mothers. At any given time, about 150 people — most of them kids — are there in well-kept apartments, rent-free. There's also a gymnasium, multi-purpose facility and administrative offices.

Residents go through a non-denominational, biblically based "discipleship" program that lasts six months to a year and is meant to address the conditions that led to their homelessness. They're also required to work or attend school.

"We're in the life-changing business," president and CEO Allen Harden said. "We do all we can to help them get their lives back together."

After the program, participants are expected to leave and begin life on their own. But some don't make it, and that's where the proposed transitional apartments come in.

For another six months, participants would live in the transitional apartments, where they would pay rent and be responsible for taking care of themselves but still have some guidance.

"It gives us another six months to make sure everything is going well. It will markedly improve our success rate," Harden said.

Construction of the apartments depends on fund-raising, so it's not clear when it will happen. In the meantime, the agency hopes to have the first phase of its expansion plan — a chapel — completed next fall.

Residents now worship in a cafeteria. The 9,000-square-foot chapel will fill that need, and also serve as a community meeting-place for surrounding neighborhoods.

The Orlando Union Rescue Mission already has raised the $1.5 million needed to build the chapel.

The second phase of the expansion would be a 7,000-square-foot emergency shelter for women and children, and the transitional apartments would come last.

The agency carries no debt and won't start construction of those buildings until all the money needed to build and operate them is raised from donors.

"It is going to be a challenge, especially with the economy the way it is," development director Amanda Fewless said. "But the Lord has perfect timing."

To learn more, go online to ourm.org

Mark Schlueb can be reached at mschlueb@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5417.

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