If there is such a thing as a typical executive director for a nonprofit agency, Janis Walker isn't it.
With frazzled, messy braids, a mouth of missing and chipped teeth, and her confession that before moving into a small motel room off State Road 17/92 in Altamonte Springs that she hadn't been in a real shower in a year, Walker seems more like a homeless person than a woman who has devoted her life to helping them.
For nearly two years, Walker has been assisting the disadvantaged in Altamonte Springs and across Central Florida, offering food, clothing and shelter through her non-profit, Project Refuge. But the last two weeks have proven hard on her. Now cash-strapped and bouncing from hotel to hotel herself, Walker is struggling to rebuild her shelter. What's she's discovering is that helping others is a business, and good intentions alone aren't enough to keep the doors open.
When I first met with her, Walker was running Project Refuge out of the Regency Inn off State Road 17-92 in Altamonte Springs. On June 10, she had left the 3,000 square-foot warehouse off Fern Street that she called home for six months because she could not pay the bills. The warehouse was her home -- and her homeless shelter. She survives on her monthly disability income, about $800, which, along with occasional donations, kept Project Refuge afloat.
In addition to being her home, the warehouse was a food bank, shelter, counseling center, and free clothing and furniture shop. She ran the place with the help of a few volunteers. Walker took in donations from various churches, businesses and individuals, and gave the goods -- and sometimes money -- away. When necessary, she says she dipped into her own bank account.
Walker is one of those people whose luck seems to run in streaks, mostly bad of late. And her life also seems to suck in strangers.
A few minutes after I left her June 12, the air conditioner in her motel room caught fire. The next day, the manager kicked her out because she couldn't pay the rent.
She doesn't own a car, so I volunteered the use of my truck to take her, her stuff, a client (Ed) and a friend (Linda) to another hotel, the Travelers Inn & Suites on Lee Road. But she didn't have the $35, plus tax, to pay for the room, so she called around to friends to raise the cash. Meanwhile, her belongings, including a computer, were stacked on the sidewalk. And it started raining. Ed wrapped a plastic tarp over Walker's computer, but it got wet anyway. A few days later, when I found Walker again, it wasn't working.
The future of Project Refuge is in limbo. Walker is trying to raise $1,500 to buy her way into a new house or a new warehouse, from which she could relaunch. Her nonprofit has officially been on the books since last April, though she ran it unofficially since late 2001, and ran a similar operation in South Carolina for more than a dozen years before moving to Florida.
Walker's operation is legally sound. She filed incorporation papers with the state and has an occupational license from Seminole County. She doesn't have 501(c)(3) status with the IRS yet because she hasn't finished the paperwork. But she has partnered with a Winter Park nonprofit, B.A.S.E. Camp Children's Cancer Foundation, to allow her to raise money like a nonprofit. She recently opened a bank account for Project Refuge.
And she is certainly compassionate. Walker talks for hours of taking in strangers and allowing them to sleep in her warehouse. She's counseled drug addicts on the verge of suicide, telling one, "If you think you're tormented now, wait till you're tormented in hell." (She once worked as a therapist in a New York mental facility.)
Her doors, such as they are, remain open 24 hours a day. She's foregone any semblance of a normal life, passing up luxuries like a car and a home for a vagabond lifestyle to help others.
"I've had over 60 clients in the last three or four months," she says. During our conversations, her cell phone rings constantly with calls from clients.
In her hotel room she keeps hundreds of her clients' files stacked neatly in plastic containers. Each lists the person's name, phone number, the reason he/she sought assistance and how Walker helped. She has two small storage units packed to the rafters with excess furniture, clothes, printers, fax machines, copiers and an odd surplus of tonic water, ready for a new office or her next round of clients, whichever comes first.
At times, however, Walker sounds bitter. Local churches and the community in general don't support her like they should, she says, and Central Floridians are more selfish than folks in South Carolina, where she lived for 12 years and ran a less formal version of Project Refuge.
"A lot of people in this neighborhood are saying the same thing `about helping the needy` but nobody's doing anything," Walker says.
Unlike other nonprofits that help the homeless, Project Refuge lacks high-profile benefactors or a wide base of corporate support. In fact, her donations come in fits and starts; only after leaving the warehouse did Project Refuge concentrate in earnest on fund raising.
As she acknowledges, helping the homeless isn't the easiest thing to raise money for. Common misconceptions that the homeless are all lazy, drug addicted or mentally ill prevail, she says.
But her biggest fund-raising problem is getting her name out. Before a colleague passed me a flyer three weeks ago, I'd never heard of Project Refuge. Neither had the Seminole County administrator who coordinates homeless shelters.
Many well-funded nonprofits have a paid staff to handle publicity. Walker doesn't. "She's very hands-on," says Gina Van Epps-Hartzell, executive director of Project partner B.A.S.E Camp. "It's hard to wear all the hats of staff when you're a one-man show."
That's a problem for fund raising too, says H. King McGlaughon, former director of the Merrill Lynch Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Development and current professor at The American College in Bryn Mawr, Penn. Donors are understandably more inclined to give to an established, visible institution.
Walker quickly points out that she has help, from both her board of directors and volunteers that help her raise funds and distribute goods. She doesn't want glory, she says. She thinks the media has smeared the image of nonprofits, making people less likely to give to her.
I asked her why she never went back to South Carolina, or at least took up her cousin's offer to move into a real house instead of bouncing from hotel to hotel. She said she couldn't take the offer because her companion, Ed, wouldn't be allowed to move in and would be back on the streets. Ed used to live in the woods, she tells me, and found shelter at Walker's old warehouse. When she closed the warehouse, he had nowhere to go, so he stayed with her. (She takes great care telling me he's not her boyfriend.)
"I'm not supposed to have a conscience?" she asks.
Walker called me the day this article went to print, telling me that misfortune had struck again. Travelers Inn & Suites asked her to leave, even though she had enough money to pay for the night.
Now she was looking for another place to spend the night and store her things. She wonders aloud whether God will reward her for her struggles of the last week.
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