Ocala, Florida — In July 2014, Tom Rebman, an English teacher in a Title 1 middle school in Orlando, Florida, went homeless for 30 days so his students could understand how difficult it is to live without shelter and food. He also wanted to keep them reading and writing during the summer.
His journey began with nothing but his ID and the clothes on his back.
“I didn’t know what would happen, where I would eat, or sleep. I was homeless for 30 days, and it was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life,” Rebman said. “I used only legal government services (shelters, food pantries, etc.) to live. I donated plasma to earn money for bus fare. I took candid video to show how homeless people are viewed and treated. I came to know many members of our homeless community, and lived as a part of their culture.”
Rebman decided to continue his journey, thus the organization Homeless and Hungry was born.
Rebman said he has a completely different outlook on life and feels homeless people are unjustly getting a bad reputation.
Teacher Chose Ocala
Rebman has now chosen Ocala to live homeless.
His goal is to promote awareness, remind everyone of the struggles the homeless face on a daily basis, and decriminalize being homeless in the city.
Over the past several months, dozens of homeless people have been arrested for open lodging within Ocala city limits. Unlike many Florida cities, Ocala does not have an ordinance prohibiting citizens from feeding the public; however, the city does have an ordinance against open lodging — as do many cities. Several were arrested just this past weekend. In one recent arrest, a man fell asleep on the steps of a local business. The police were called and the man was arrested and charged with Open Lodging.
Officials said, “What the public needs to realize is many of the homeless people chose to be homeless. They chose to live off the grid, and many of them are criminals; some have been convicted of violent crimes. The ordinance is meant to help the homeless as well as protect the individuals around them.”
However, citizens in Marion County disagree and say the police have their facts wrong. Many have expressed anger because they feel the city has not done more to help the homeless and leave it up to police to track the number of homeless people in Ocala.
Many of the homeless are veterans that have returned home to nothing. In 2010, more than 20,000 active-duty veterans and reservists with government-sponsored mortgages lost their homes, a 32-percent increase from 2008 and the largest loss since 2003. The number could have been worse were it not for Veterans Administration programs that helped 66,000 military families avoid foreclosure in 2010.
Even worse, military members are often victims of foreclosure fraud. In November 2011, federal regulators released data showing that more than 5,000 military members were illegally foreclosed upon by the nation’s 10 largest banks, and veterans continue to battle banks to stay in their homes on a daily basis. A large portion of veterans that lost their home during this time, are still homeless today.
Rebman, a military veteran himself, served for 23-years.
Homeless, Day 1
On Rebman’s first day in Ocala, he quickly learned that the compassion from volunteers and faith-based organizations are much greater than that of individuals who are paid to help the homeless. He also said despite it not being that cold, the lower temperatures are usually what gets him the fastest.
He only takes money if it is offered or earned. “If I don’t raise enough money to eat, I don’t eat,” Rebman said. When he visits shelters he also refuses to take a bed from a person that needs it more.
Ocala is the fifth city in which Rebman has chosen to live homeless. He has also lived homeless in Orlando, Daytona, St. Petersburg Beach, and Sarasota. In Daytona Beach — Like Fort Lauderdale — it is illegal to feed the homeless in public. Rebman rated Daytona with an “F” because of the city’s lack of compassion for the homeless.
Redman is hoping he does not have to give Ocala the same rating.
“I will not leave town until there is a discussion about the homeless situation in Ocala,” Rebman said.
If you would like to follow his journey and read more about the organization, you can visit his Facebook page at Homeless and Hungry.