The Agape House…has been a sanctuary for us and made us feel normal again. I cannot believe we are finally coming out of this unbelievable nightmare we have been living…You have taken tattered lives and sewn them back together with love and kindness. I will carry you in my heart forever. — A temporary resident of Agape House
The Agape House resident who wrote this letter was a military veteran who became seriously ill just as her husband lost his job. Facing medical bills without health insurance led to bankruptcy and left the couple homeless, an unexpected situation that created their unbelievable nightmare.
After one month in the temporary residence established to help the homeless get their lives in order, the couple began to stitch their lives back together again. They were among nine individuals or families who found temporary shelter at Agape House of Oak Ridge in 2014, when the nonprofit began offering shelter for the homeless. Each of them is now permanently housed.
“They are struggling, yes, because these things don’t get fixed in six months. But they are housed, plugged into the resources they need and working toward self-sufficiency,” said Michael McCutcheon, who with his wife Lynn Ross founded Agape House in 2013.
“We want to help people have a change in thinking on who are the homeless,” he said. Though there are some chronically homeless people who don’t want to do anything to help themselves, others find themselves without shelter because of emergencies or unexpected situations.
“People don’t think the bad things are going to happen to them,” he said. With short-term help, many homeless people can become self-sufficient again, McCutcheon believes. People make investments in run-down housing to improve it, and McCutcheon asked why not make investments in people to help them regain their self-sufficiency.
McCutcheon and Ross became aware of the problems of homelessness when they participated in a count of homeless in Anderson County in 2013 through TORCH (Trinity Outreach Center of Hope), a nonprofit formed to help the homeless toward self-sufficiency.
“In talking with others, we learned there were no short-term housing solutions to assist agencies trying to work through issues and find permanent housing for people,” McCutcheon said. Federal grant funds allow the city to offer temporary hotel stays for the homeless, an expensive solution providing shelter, but not a home.
“What kind of environment is that when a family is trying to make plans for life?” McCutcheon asked.
He and Ross decided they wanted to do something to help. They bought an 1,800-square-foot home in foreclosure and spent six months renovating the home that would become Agape House.
“It is not an institution. It is not a group home. It is one family at a time,” McCutcheon explained. “We have rejected people because 30 days wasn’t going to make a difference for them.”
Agencies such as TORCH and Ridgeview Behavioral Health Services, as well as the Veterans Administration, have referred people to Agape House. The agencies provide intake services and work with the homeless to develop a solid plan for permanent housing after a 30-day stay. There is no charge to the Agape House guests or the agencies, other than a security deposit agencies are asked to keep in escrow. Other partners include the Tennessee Valley Coalition for the Homeless, Habitat for Humanity of Anderson County, and Ecumenical Storehouse.
“The location is kept private to insure privacy for our guests and to keep people who don’t have a referring agency from just showing up there,” McCutcheon said. “Also, we have offered Agape House to the police department as a possible place to house a person to relieve pressure in a domestic dispute.”
Agape House is an all-volunteer agency, and all contributions go directly to the care and services of the guests, McCutcheon said. This year’s budget is small, $12,250, and the funds cover needs of the guests and house expenses such as utilities and insurance. A board of directors and an advisory board aid McCutcheon and Ross in managing Agape House.
Members of his church, First United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, were among the first to help with contributions and remodeling needed for Agape House to open. Other churches are lending support as they learn of the work of the Agape House. Tax-deductible donations may be made to Agape House and mailed to First United Methodist Church, 1350 Oak Ridge Turnpike, Oak Ridge, TN 37830.
Guests at Agape House have included a man who needed a place to recover after surgery that enabled him to return to work, a mother and four children who were being housed at a motel at considerable expense, and a young adult and her young sister new to Oak Ridge and the United States. Agape House helped them with food, clothing, medical and dental care, school enrollment, and immigration processing.
Others were a family of six living in a tent camper, even though two of the family members were working, and a woman, also employed, who had spent 18 days sleeping in her car. A combat wounded veteran on full disability who had been living in his car in a local store parking lot also found refuge in Agape House before moving into an apartment.
If Agape guests are interested, they are matched with mentor advocates who help them through the steps to self-sufficiency. About half of the guests have worked with mentor advocates, McCutcheon said.
Moving homeless individuals and families into self-sufficiency often involves changing behavior that may have contributed to their homelessness, looking at their assets and liabilities, and building confidence as they set and reach short-term and long-term goals, he said.
“We celebrate every success,” he added.
McCutcheon is renovating a second location, a duplex, which will allow Agape House to serve more than one individual or family a month. After turning people away because the Agape House was occupied last year, the two additional units, to open later this year, should meet the needs in Oak Ridge, he said.
After McCutcheon retired from General Motors in the Detroit area, he and Ross, originally from Oak Ridge, moved here in 2008 to be closer to her parents, who truly loved the Oak Ridge community. Founding Agape House was a great way to invest in the community that Lynn’s parents loved.
“We feel that we’re mandated by God to try to make our world a better place. It is our job to take the love that he has shown us and share it with others,” McCutcheon said. “What stood out to us in the scriptures over and over again is that if you can’t show love to your neighbor, you’re really not practicing the Christian faith.
“It is all about love. It is one giant love story,” he said. “God loves us. He wants us to love him back, and how do we do that? Taking care of those around us.”
For more information on Agape House, see the web site at www.oakridgeagape.org and Facebook page, Agape House of Oak Ridge.