1/1/2015 – West Side Leader By Pam Lifke

GREATER AKRON — The homeless often aren’t who we think they are.

After watching his adopted son’s birth father become homeless following the loss of a job, Joel Testa, a Cuyahoga Falls developer, learned anyone can lose a home.

Testa started the Formerly Homeless Foundation to give a new face to the homeless, most of whom have lost their homes through no fault or choice of their own, he said.

“The public perception of [homelessness] is a little warped,” Testa said.

A homeless person may be working two jobs and living in his car or couch surfing with friends, Testa said. Many are homeless women with children who are trying to escape domestic violence, he said.

By telling their stories, the Formerly Homeless Foundation hopes to change people’s ideas of who the homeless really are, he added.

The foundation’s website, www.formerlyhomeless.org, provides mechanism for homeless and formerly homeless people to tell their stories, Testa said. He said he encourages anyone who has faced homelessness to upload an account of his or her experience to the website and give people a better understanding of who the homeless really are.

“Anyone could become homeless at any time,” he said.

Testa said he hopes formerly homeless celebrities like Blair Griffith, the 2011 Miss USA contestant from Colorado, will use the website to tell their stories, too.

In addition to changing the public perception of homelessness, the foundation works through the year to provide assistance to the homeless in Akron. Testa, for the second year, spearheaded a clothing drive and on Dec. 21 organized volunteers to assemble 1,000 bagged lunches and hosted, with his restaurant business partners, a Christmas dinner for 75 homeless people.

Testa said clothing, collected over a period of weeks, was sorted by volunteers, bagged and delivered to the Haven of Rest and Community Support Services (CSS).

More than 60 volunteers made 1,000 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and packed them in decorated paper bags along with juice boxes and an assortment of fruit, granola bars, applesauce, raisins and homemade Christmas cookies, Testa said. The bagged Christmas lunches were delivered to CSS, Gennesaret and Middlebury Chapel on South Arlington Street for distribution to the men, women and children they serve, he said.

Volunteers also went door to door at The Commons at Madaline Park, a Testa development, delivering bagged lunches to the residents of Akron’s first permanent supportive housing development for the formerly homeless, Testa said.

Later in the day, Testa and his restaurant partners, Dante Boccuzzi, Morgan Yagi and Dave Sharp, opened the doors of DBA, a four-star restaurant in Akron’s Northside area to their special guests.

CSS distributed tickets for the second annual dinner and provided transportation to the restaurant, Testa said.

“The menu was special to me because it happens to be my traditional Christmas Eve dinner,” said Testa, adding the 75 special guests dined on pasta fagiole, bracciole, focaccia bread and tiramisu.

“We got to hear some great stories about who these people are and what their future is,” Testa said.

Testa said the organization will continue its work throughout the winter.

“We’ll do giveaways all winter long,” he said.

Although cold weather presents new challenges for the homeless, “We’ve been very fortunate with the weather this winter,” Testa added.

Formerly Homeless will distribute hand warmers and bus passes in addition to tents, tarps, hats, jackets and gloves, he said. Socks are in great demand through the winter months as it is difficult to keep feet warm and dry during cold and wet weather, Testa said.

Testa said he believes everyone is given a talent or a strength and helping the homeless is what he has been called to do. For many years, Testa and his wife struggled to have a child, he said. After the open adoption of their son, Testa said he saw firsthand how homelessness happens: he saw his son’s birth father lose a job and be convicted of a felony.

“I saw him struggle and I thought, ‘If he had a place to go or people to look out for him, he might not have become homeless,’” he said.

Testa partnered with the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority and qualified for Ohio Housing Authority tax credits to build The Commons at Madaline Park, a 60-unit supportive housing development. In addition to subsidized housing, the development provides formerly homeless people with workforce development skills, job placement and training.

“It is robust in services,” Testa said. “It’s not shelter housing. It’s not emergency housing. We want to help them live on their own.”

A percentage of the units is set aside for veterans, he said.

The development offers exam rooms and a pharmacy for onsite medical care. Flower and vegetable gardens are tended by the residents, who then sell the produce to learn job skills. Residents will staff an on-premise general store as part of the job-training program, Testa said.

Residents must put down a security deposit, Testa said. The Formerly Homeless Foundation will assist those eligible with the security deposit in return for an agreement to work off the amount with jobs in the development. Recipients may do housekeeping, landscaping or work with the foundation through community outreach or clerical work to pay back the foundation, Testa said.

Testa will break ground on a second Akron development, The Commons at Madaline Park II in 2015 and has built a similar development in Lima.