Don Cotton had hit rock bottom. He was homeless, on drugs, out of jail, and in prison. Most people would have given up, decided that there was nothing else they could do to get themselves out of this destructive cycle.
Cotton, however, is not like most people.
After serving his sentence in prison, Cotton went to the Miami Rescue Mission, where he remained for eighteen months, studying the Bible. Upon graduating from the mission, Cotton was hired by the very people who had helped him turn his life around.
For the past ten years he has worked with the Miami Rescue Mission, starting out as a monitor. Nine promotions later, Cotton is now in charge of both the Hollywood and Pompano shelters.
“It’s not a job for me.” said Cotton. “It’s a ministry for me, to be able to serve other people and it’s not about me. All the time I found out that my life wasn’t about me, it was about where my faith in God placed me to where I would be able to help others. You got people watching me saying, ‘If he could do it, I could do it.’”
I was able to speak with Don Cotton, Program Supervisor for the Broward Outreach Centers of Hollywood and Pompano, about their shelter system and his personal transformation.
Hollywood Gazette: How many people is the Broward Outreach Center (BOC) currently assisting?
Don Cotton: In Hollywood we have a 128 bed facility. We have seven family units. Our bed availability comes through 211 [an emergency housing and social services hotline]. We send our availability out every morning and a task force will see the availability and send people for our program.
We have an emergency shelter program, those are the ones that 211 sends us– about eighteen people a night. Pretty much they just want to shower, change clothes, eat, and go about their business the next day. Every day at 3:30 p.m. we pull the bed list of the referrals which 211 sent us. The task force, they send us twelve [people]…we have a capacity of thirty referrals a day. That’s pretty much what we can hold right now… we also have crisis beds where we can place one or two people. If we have any overflow room we use those as crisis beds.
HG: How long, on average, have people been experiencing homelessness before they come to BOC?
DC: That is individualized – you might have some people who have been out there for four years, five years, six years, and then you might have some who have been out there a year or a month. The majority are anywhere between two to three months that they have been homeless.
HG: What is the average amount of time people spend at BOC?
DC: The emergency shelter hotline, 211, refers them for three nights, but they have to call each and every day… to get back on the list. The drug treatment center that we have here, is an average of about sixty days.
HG: What are the different programs or services are offered for those experiencing homelessness?
DC: We have our GED program, our life skills program, therapists on site, and assistance with day care. We have mentoring programs, what we call the Covergirls. [The Covergirls] come out and mentor our lady clients. People come in and donate hygiene products that we provide. HIV testing, job readiness, I can go on about all the services that we offer here but those are the majority that we offer.
HG: How does an individual obtain emergency shelter at the Broward Outreach Center? Is it on a first come/first served basis?
DC: For emergency shelter they call 211. 211 would call them back and say ‘we got your referral so you…are on the referral list.’ If somebody just walks up at this time it would be difficult [to house them] because we don’t have the room.
HG: Do there tend to be more families or individuals who come to the Broward Outreach Center?
DC: It is more individuals, but we do have a large amount of families that come up. We get crisis calls and those are very hard because our units are filled all the time with families because we have 17 units total between Hollywood and Pompano. You might have a family of five, a family of six, and we can only house up to a family of five [in one unit]; in Pompano it is up to a family of four. It can get very difficult, especially for the kids because it is very hard on kids in a shelter.
HG: The Huffington Post reported that in more than half of U.S. cities, it is illegal for a person experiencing homelessness to even sit on a sidewalk. How can things be changed to help those experiencing homelessness?
DC: My point of view is that I experienced homelessness. There were people that gave me compassion, the Miami Rescue Mission gave me compassion; they gave me hope. They helped me with restoration, but transformation, that was on me.
HG: How did your transformation come about?
DC: I applied the Word of God to my life. Areas I needed to work on, I applied the Word of God to my life.
I had to be reconstructed, in faith they would say ‘born again’. I had to learn new ways of doing things because a lot of the people who were telling me things in my life, I would embrace those things and I believed those things, but they weren’t actually true.
And when I was applying those things to my life, they weren’t right. They always made me end up in a shelter, on a street, in a jail, so I had to lose that.
The reason I embraced those things was because people were telling me that they cared about me and that they wouldn’t lie to me. So, a lot of the things that had been poured into my life weren’t right so I had to be born again.
I used Godly principles to restore me and rebuild me to a better man.
HG: How was your faith strengthened? Did you start going to Church?
DC: It was more than Church. I went to Church all my life, but I was just going to Church.
You can go to Church and not get anything out of it. I always say that there if there is no application, there is no change. I went into the Miami Rescue Mission, an eighteen month program in Miami.
It is a faith based program that the Broward Outreach Center operates under. I went there and studied the Word of God. We woke up and I didn’t go to watch the television, no newspapers, none of that, we just studied the Word of God and applied it to our life, and transformation came into my life.
There were certain things that I didn’t want to do anymore. It was a longer term program and it worked for me, I needed that. I needed somewhere where I could get focused and start working on changing my life. That’s what really touched my life, when I really accepted my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and I started applying the Word of God to my life.
A light came on and I knew that the things that I was doing always ended me up in bad places so I knew that I had to listen to somebody and learn a new way and that way was my faith and following God. I am doing what I love to do.
When I get up, I am happy to come here because I know that I am going to impact somebody’s life.
HG: That is amazing that now you get to be a role model for so many people.
DC: I always let people know that I am not exempt from a fall; I am just like everybody else. I always stand on this right here: “He who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
So, I continue to humble myself because any change that happened in me, it came from God.
HG: What is the best way for people to help those experiencing homelessness and the Broward Outreach Center?
DC: Well, first of all, they can come by, go through orientation and volunteer.
Monetary gifts are fine because, just imagine, this center runs 365 days a year and it doesn’t stop. People are taking showers every night and the A/C stays on everyday.
Also, if you get too big for your clothes and want to donate clothes, we use them right here; we give them to the clients. Kids clothes, any drives that they want to have: water drives, food drives, diaper drives, whatever drive!
That would help, also. If the ladies want to be part of the Covergirls they can come and two days out of the month for an hour they can mentor a young lady and keep them encouraged.
Don Cotton truly is an inspiration to those struggling through homelessness. He also continues to be a role model to all with his story of perseverance and purpose. Even with all that he has gone through, he still wants to use his life to help others, and we should, too.