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Teacher Hopes To Raise Awareness, Compassion For Homeless By Living On The Street

Tom Rebman

Tom Rebman is wearing an acid washed denim jacket, a black beanie and torn jeans. It’s cold in North Florida and a pair of long johns peek through the tear near his knee. His face is weathered, covered in a few days worth of salt and paper stubble. But the lines on his face frame clear blue eyes full of passion.

“Let me just say this: I don’t even like to say ‘homeless people,’ they’re people who are homeless. Because they’re not homeless first. They’re people first,” Rebman says.

That’s the center of Rebman’s campaign. He’s a teacher. But he says now instead of teaching middle school kids to read he hopes to teach Floridians that the homeless guy they pass every day is a person who Rebman says can only really be helped by being treated like well.... a person.

“You know when they know somebody wants to help them then they’ll achieve. When they have somebody that cares about them that’s what they’re missing, because you know what I needed more than a blanket …I needed a hug, I needed somebody to make me feel human,” Rebman says.

Rebman says the best way to start is with no-rules-attached housing. And Director of Florida’s Office on Homelessness, Erik Braun agrees when it comes to the state’s chronically homeless the so called “housing first model” is the best choice.

“Get them into a home, a fixed and stable residence where they can be at home, they can feel like they have a place to call their own where they can sleep in safety. This is a baseline need. It’s a baseline need for me. At the end of my day, I get to go home. Nobody has 10 rules for me to be in my home.”

Braun defines chronically homeless as a person who suffers from a mental or physical disability or substance abuse, who sleeps outside or in public spaces, and who has been living on the street for more than a year. Bran and Rebman met during Rebman’s stop in Tallahassee where he lived as a homeless person. And the two generally agree on the best practices for addressing homelessness. Although Braun points out the chronically homeless, which Rebman is highlighting, make up just 20 percent of the state’s homeless population.

“The largest percentage of homeless are going to be those who are in different areas of homelessness. That’s going to be a much bigger issue because there’s all sorts of issues related to their homelessness in terms of transportation, housing employment. Those are all poverty issues. Those are all economic factors,” Braun says.

And in fact, Rebman says that less visible form of homelessness is what drove him to start his project. Rebman works at a school where 97 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunches – meaning most of the school’s students live below the poverty line.

“How am I going to get these kids to read over the summer? I mean these kids don’t have window in their homes they don’t even know if mom or dad will be home, Rebman says." "Are they going to read a book? No.”

It’s hard to get an accurate count of who is homeless in the state. A 2014 report from Florida’s Council on Homelessness counts more than 40-thousand people living on the streets – but that’s based on a single point in time count, that not every county completed. Public school’s list more than 70-thousand students who were homeless at some point during 2013 based on a broader definition of homelessness that includes sleeping in shelters, cars or with friends or family. And Rebman says that’s what’s important to remember people who are homeless are children, families, veterans and hard workers who lost a job and are struggling to make ends meet. He hopes though raising awareness and compassion, he can help.

If you'd like to learn more,  You can track Rebman’s journey on his facebook page Homeless and Hungry.