With Hurricane Irma barreling toward Central Florida earlier this month, a group of UCF students chose to hit the streets of downtown Orlando to warn the area’s homeless population rather than evacuate.
Eighteen members of the student organization Hearts for the Homeless Orlando checked with shelters and canvassed downtown to warn homeless people that a dangerous storm was coming and convince them to head indoors.
They’re no strangers to the homeless people in Orlando. Twice a week, dozens of Hearts for the Homeless volunteers give free blood-pressure screenings and health information at homeless food-sharing events downtown.
“I couldn’t even sleep, thinking about homeless people out there who may not even know this hurricane is coming,” said Andrew Aboujaoude, president and one of the group’s founders. “We just didn’t want to see our friends in danger.”
At a group meeting, Aboujaoude asked for volunteers willing to help. Many stepped forward, including some whose parents urged them to evacuate.
“I thought, ‘This is an opportunity to make a difference, an opportunity to contribute in a way that means something,’” said Elizabeth Aguilar, a 21-year-old junior who led the effort to coordinate with shelters and volunteers.
Sophomore James Overman mapped out the area the group needed to cover, and helped comb downtown in search of homeless people.
“All of my roommates left. My parents were very concerned. I was getting calls from my grandmother – and she almost always gets her way – but I just felt like there was a higher calling for me,” said Overman, 19.
Students designed and copied brochures with maps to nearby homeless shelters, including Orlando Union Rescue Mission and shelters operated by the Coalition for the Homeless. On the Friday evening before Irma hit Central Florida, they spoke to homeless people at a food-sharing event, then fanned out around downtown to warn others.
The student volunteers distributed shelter maps to 167 homeless people, and talked with many others.
Some homeless people told them they didn’t know a hurricane was headed their way. Some didn’t know where to find the closest shelter. And some were reluctant to stay in a shelter because they were unaware that nightly fees had been lifted.
Since the group was launched in 2016, its members have worked with students at other universities to establish chapters on their campuses, including Florida International University, the University of Florida, Florida State University and the University of South Florida.
Those connections helped during Irma. In addition to Orlando, the UCF students were able to mobilize their counterparts at chapters in Miami and Gainesville to make contact with homeless people in those communities.
Many of the students who volunteered in Orlando were new to Hearts for the Homeless.
“Quite a few had never had any personal experience with the homeless,” said Jennifer Carvel, vice president and co-founder. “It was not only brave of them to come out with us before the hurricane, but also to step out of their comfort zone.”
Hearts for the Homeless members didn’t fully realize the impact of their work until they visited downtown not long after Irma passed. A homeless man said he’d been unaware a hurricane was coming and the students convinced him to go to a shelter.
“He said he had no clue,” Aboujaoude said. “He was saying, ‘The Lord saved my life through the people he sent to me that day.’”