Florida teacher goes homeless to spread his message

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- For weeks, Tom Rebman begged for money, slept on rock-hard concrete and had days his feet got so cold and rain-soaked he couldn't feel them.

Although he camouflaged himself inside Daytona's homeless population, Rebman is an Orlando teacher on a self-imposed one-year sabbatical from work to try to help Florida's unsheltered.

After making himself temporarily homeless in Orlando for 30 days over the summer, he came to Daytona Beach on Nov. 17 to see firsthand what it's like to be homeless in Volusia County. The 53-year-old also wants to put himself in the spotlight long enough to let people know what he thinks helps the homeless most: a free place to live with no strings attached.

"They should not have to do anything," Rebman said. "If the person chooses no detox so be it. In every circumstance, I ask myself, 'what would a regular citizen expect?' I then afford those same rights to the homeless."

The only exception he makes to his rule is insisting on treatment for people with mental illness that renders them unable to make sound decisions for themselves.

"I don't mind bunk-style homes, tiny homes or even a piece of ground they can call home as long as it's not temporary or conditional," said Rebman, who believes people are inspired to improve their lives once they have a place of their own. "At least give them a tent city. ... I think we really need some movement in the city of Daytona."

Rebman's timing is unwittingly impeccable, arriving on the World's Most Famous Beach after more than a year of public discussion and a study by a consultant has the Daytona Beach City Commission leading the charge for a new one-stop homeless assistance complex that could be built in the middle of the county.

Rebman predicts failure for the homeless complex that many Volusia County agencies, local governments and homeless advocates have come to believe is the right way to go. He suspects too many homeless would just play the system to have free food and shelter for a while.

Ultimately he thinks the homeless would choose to leave because they'd be overwhelmed by demands and deadlines at the shelter, where caseworkers would guide people toward a life of supporting themselves again. Local leaders, however, have said they want a low-pressure place where people will come to voluntarily and can leave at any time. If needed, those with no roofs over their heads could stay for close to a year.

But Rebman argues suddenly having responsibilities and making decisions would be too much for people who need to come down from fighting for their lives every day.

"Give them a cool-down period of at least 30 days," he said. "The empathetic approach is how it gets solved."

The Texas homeless consultant Daytona hired, Robert Marbut, said studies have shown 10 days of regular sleep, meals and hydration is usually enough for a homeless person to get centered again. Those with addictions need to make detox priority number one, and those with mental illness also need to get immediate treatment for those problems, Marbut said.

Rebman believes Volusia County is already too punitive and rule-heavy with its homeless people, and he argues more rules are the last thing that's needed.

"In your city the homeless are being punished all day every day for doing nothing," Rebman said during an interview last week at a Beach Street coffee shop, a day when he was surviving off his wits and the 60 cents jingling in his jeans pocket that was leftover from the $16 he panhandled.

He bristled at a sign across from the coffee shop in City Island Park that warns people not to be there before sunrise or after sunset, camp, loiter, litter, sleep on city equipment and engage in feeding program activities.

Rebman believes Volusia County - which has an estimated 5,000 homeless people - and any other place with a sizable homeless population ultimately needs permanent supportive housing to get a good share of the unsheltered off the streets for good.

But when Rebman spoke to Daytona's mayor and city commissioners at their meeting last week, he wasn't able to steer them off the path they're already traveling.

"Permanent supportive housing is expensive, and even to support a few beds is expensive," said Commissioner Pam Woods, who's the school system's homeless liaison. "It's having that continuum, the whole range of services and meeting needs that's necessary."

City Commissioner Rob Gilliland crunched some numbers, and he estimates permanent supportive housing would cost 10 times more than the shelter Volusia County leaders are considering.

"He's pushing a solution that's not viable," Gilliland said.

Mayor Derrick Henry feels Volusia County will "get the best bang for our buck" with the proposed shelter.

"I'm committed to the plan we have in place," Henry said.

Rebman has done his best to spread his message in Volusia County, doing a guest spot on a local radio talk show and giving a talk to the Kiwanis Club in New Smyrna Beach. When he leaves Daytona Beach, which could happen in a few days, he's heading to two more Florida cities he believes need overhauls in their approaches to dealing with the homeless.

He doesn't want to publicly say yet where he's going, but it'll become clear when his Facebook posts and on-line video diaries start focusing on the next town.

When Rebman retired in 2001 from a 23-year Navy career, he moved to Volusia County and earned a master's degree in teaching reading from Stetson University. He taught at elementary and middle schools in DeLand and Deltona before moving to Orlando two years ago.

He said he initially went homeless in Orlando July 4 to keep his students reading over the summer with blogs about his adventures, including waking up at 4 a.m. one morning to someone fishing through his pants pockets for valuables.

As Orlando homeless people changed from statistics to friends, and Rebman suffered through many of the things they did, his mission became one of advocacy for the unsheltered. Social media and the Orlando media took notice of what he was doing, and he realized he had an audience. He said he has 120,000 people looking at his Facebook page.

"I couldn't go back to teaching" right away, he said, noting he does plan to teach again next fall.

In a few weeks, Daytona city commissioners are slated to vote on getting into a second contract with Marbut, the homeless expert who has lived among the homeless himself several times to do research. The contract would require Marbut to provide guidance to the beginning of shelter construction.

Rebman hopes to see Volusia County change direction. He's latched onto findings from independent consultants who concluded earlier this year that the price of leaving the chronically homeless on Orange County's streets is $31,000 per person per year to cover costs for things such as jail and emergency medical care. Experts have said the Orange County area would save about two-thirds of that expense by offering the homeless permanent supportive housing.

Brad Carter, who has been homeless in Daytona Beach for several years, is suspicious of favoring housing-first programs over shelters. Shelters take in most anyone in need willing to live by some rules. But the often more expensive housing-first programs, saddled by limited money, give top priority to the chronically homeless and those with a diagnosed disability and "leave everyone else out in the cold," Carter said.

"To overcome homelessness, everyone needs a safe alternative to sleeping on the street," Carter said.

Some local leaders say Volusia County can't compare itself to Orange County, which has more than 360 shelter beds. Volusia County has about a dozen beds for homeless adults who don't qualify for programs targeting families, veterans, domestic violence victims and those with addictions and mental health struggles.

"We need to catch up to other communities and get transitional housing," said Volusia County Judge Belle Schumann, who backs the shelter idea.

Rebman said the 250-person shelter being proposed for Volusia County is much better than what's available now, and said he doesn't "want to stop anything in progress." He mainly takes issue with particulars and doesn't want to see local homeless "harassed" before there's a place for them to go.

He hopes he's being heard.

"Why do you think I'm putting myself on the line every day?" Rebman asked. "It's dangerous. There's no controls on this. It's not for the attention. ... I have an opportunity to change the world. Any sacrifice is worth it."

For more information on Thomas Rebman, click here.


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