July 04--After the fireworks show at Lake Eola this Fourth of July, middle-school teacher Thomas Rebman plans to kiss his wife, hug his stepson and venture off into a 30-day odyssey of homelessness with nothing more than an ID card, his iPhone and a charger.
No money. No food. Not even a toothbrush.
"And the phone and charger are only to post updates," he vowed. "I won't be calling or texting. If my wife wants to find out how I'm doing, she can follow the updates on Facebook like everyone else."
If it sounds extreme, Rebman, 53, says that's the point.
"Most people have no idea who the homeless are," Rebman said. "There's a homeless camp near where I live by the University of Central Florida, and one of the families, for instance, has a father who is an unemployed painter, a wife who is disabled, and they're living with their children in the woods.
"They're not the old stereotype of drug addicts and criminals. They're the working poor."
Rebman, a reading teacher at Lockhart Middle, has set up a FundRazr donation button on his "Homeless and Hungry" Facebook page, where he will chronicle his encounters and his attempts to find work with no fixed address and no documented work history.
Any money donated -- and Rebman hopes the campaign will go viral -- will be divided among the Coalition for the Homeless, Second Harvest Food Bank and Orange County Public Schools. For the latter, he wants to buy iPads for struggling students to counter the backward slide in reading proficiency over the summer break.
"He is quite passionate, and I know all his students will be following him through this experience," said Gloria Sciascia, an intensive-reading teacher at Legacy Middle School, where Rebman spent a year as her most devoted volunteer ever before he landed his paid teaching post.
"Most people who sign up are enthusiastic at first, but pretty soon they start to lose interest, and soon you never see them again," Sciascia said. "He was there every day bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and he'd actually develop lesson plans at night and bring in all these ideas and materials."
He also brought food -- not just to his students in need, but also to low-income seniors and homeless families. He has met plenty of the latter in the past two years. Still, Sciascia said, "I wonder if he really knows what he's getting into."
Though he has been contemplating the 30-day homeless venture for a year, he said, he purposefully left details unscripted. A pack-a-day smoker, he vows only to have cigarettes if he can bum or earn them. He doesn't know where he'll spend his first night -- or, for that matter, any night after that. He won't use his connections, his credit cards or his health insurance.
"Unless it's life-threatening, I'm going to live exactly as a homeless person would," said Rebman, a retired U.S. Navy officer who took up teaching as a second career. "First, I won't really learn what it's like unless they accept me. And, second, if there's not a lot of pain, there won't be a lot of interest."
That's partly why he picked perhaps the most miserable month of the year to live outdoors in Central Florida, though it's also because, with his teaching schedule, he wouldn't miss work.
"This guy's got guts -- I'll give him that," said Dave Krepcho, Second Harvest's president and CEO. "And I think he will be very powerful in educating the community. I think people will pay more attention to him than they would some social-service provider talking about the homeless."
Andrae Bailey, CEO of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, hopes the effort will reinforce his agency's own public-awareness campaign, dubbed Rethink Homelessness. And he applauds Rebman's long-haul approach, considering that most attempts to experience a homeless "life" last one or two nights.
"I think just the fact that he'll be spending so much time with the people out there will change his opinion of why people are homeless," Bailey said. "I have found that they are homeless almost entirely for circumstances beyond their control, and I think that's not easy to see until you get close to them."
[email protected] or 407-420-5503407-420-5503. To follow Rebman's journey, go to his Facebook page, Homeless and Hungry, or follow him on Twitter at @HungrynHomeless.
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