Moved by faith, Eric Camarillo helps build a lifeline for people living on the streets
This is a copy of the Orlando Sentinel article released on March 2, 2022 by Kate Santich
"The man is 72, homeless, diabetic and in a wheelchair, his size 13 feet painfully swollen. He has come to a parking lot in Parramore where there are free showers and laundry services to get a clean pair of socks, though he no longer has the dexterity to put them on himself.
Eric Camarillo, the 34-year-old in charge here, kneels as he tries to get the socks over the man’s long-neglected toenails, which have begun to curl sideways.
The man winces.
“I’m so sorry,” Camarillo offers softly. “Let’s start again.”
It may seem like a small thing — a clean pair of socks — but to those who are dejected, desperate, homeless and often sick, any comfort is big. The people typically begin flocking here well before the gates open at 9 a.m., the line often stretching around the perimeter, and they keep coming until the gates close again at 5 — for showers, for laundry, for new clothing or haircuts, to pick up their mail or charge their phones.
And every encounter, even simply for a pair of socks, is a chance for Camarillo and his staff to build relationships, hoping to connect the homeless to social workers who can help them navigate a return to housing.
This is SALT Outreach — Service and Love Together — the faith-based nonprofit organization Camarillo started in 2011 with the help of a few close friends and, for most of its first decade, an all-volunteer workforce that is now in the hundreds. For Camarillo’s devotion, innovation, humility and grace, he is a finalist for the Orlando Sentinel’s Central Floridian of the Year.
Growing with the need
After years of incremental growth, SALT mushroomed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“When everyone else was closing down and staying home, Eric and his team were the ones that ran toward the problem,” said Lisa Portelli, senior advisor to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer on homelessness. “I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic, but remember that this was a time when we didn’t know if you could live or die if you got this, right? And here they are, willing to be down there, running showers, doing laundry, [giving out] masks and antibacterial gel. They demonstrated the most incredible courage and commitment to their cause I think I’ve ever seen.”
In the span of 11 years, Camarillo’s nonprofit has gone from two volunteers feeding about 15 homeless people once or twice a month to a paid staff of 25 helping as many as 200 people every day. It has grown from an annual budget of $2,000 to over $1 million. And while its home base is currently the parking lot of the Christian Service Center on West Central Boulevard five days a week, it also operates in Sanford once a week, Daytona Beach and Tampa once a month and Cocoa once a quarter.
The team also made recent trips to California to meet with faith-based groups that want to copy there what SALT has done here.
“They’re very entrepreneurial, very ambitious, very innovative. And it doesn’t really stop,” said Eric Gray, executive director of the Christian Service Center, who invited SALT to use the parking lot and a spare building free of charge.
“I’m very impressed with them and with [Camarillo] as a CEO,” Gray said. “He’s very polite and very, very soft-spoken. But in actuality, his brain is going a million miles a minute, playing chess constantly, trying to figure out what’s the next best move.”
Perhaps, Gray said, Camarillo’s dedication also comes from empathy. For six months as a young adult, he was homeless himself.
He just didn’t know it at the time.
Living out of a car
Camarillo grew up in Chicago with a Mexican-American father who was severely ill and a Filipino mother who worked the graveyard shift as a nurse to support the family. He had two younger brothers, one of them autistic.
When Camarillo was 15, he and a friend were walking home from school when they were stopped by gang members, who held them at gunpoint. If a police car hadn’t happened to drive by just then, it’s not clear what would have happened, but the scare was enough to prompt the family to relocate to Central Florida, where an uncle lived.
At 19, though, Camarillo returned to Chicago to work in financial services sales — mortgages, mutual funds, life insurance. He had a legion of childhood friends there and enough money to last what he thought would be a few months until he was bringing in big commissions.
“I was really driven by money and success,” he said. “I thought of myself as a businessperson trying to make a million dollars a year.”
Within a few weeks, he was broke and living out of his car.
He washed himself and his clothes in 7-Eleven restrooms. He ate at Mexican restaurants, consuming free chips and salsa, then ducking out before anyone could take his order. If he had a dollar, he’d order a slice of bread at a Panera, load it with as much free butter as possible, and fold it in half for a sandwich.
It prevented starvation, but not hunger.
And though he never thought of himself as homeless then, he said, he knows looking back that he was simply too proud to admit it. After six months, he came home with “his tail between his legs,” as he puts it, moved back in with his mother, and began searching for a job and a purpose, not necessarily in that order.
“I didn’t believe in God, necessarily,” he said. “But I cried out to somebody: ‘Why am I here? What am I supposed to do with my life?’ I really believe that everybody has a God-shaped hole in their heart. I know I did in mine.”
Trying to fill it has directed every step since.
It prompted him to randomly open a Bible a friend had given him. To seek out the Orlando Filipino Seventh-day Adventist Church in Apopka, where he was baptized in May 2010. To leave a $50,000-a-year job at a bank because they wanted him to work on Saturdays, the Adventists’ sabbath.
“After I quit, I cried in the [bank’s] bathroom for, like, 15 minutes,” he said. “I had thousands of dollars of bills to pay every month, and I didn’t know how I was going to pay that. They all thought I was crazy.”
But each month afterward, little miracles would happen, Camarillo said. The bank issued him a check for paid time off he hadn’t taken. An overdue sales commission landed. He found odd jobs, until, eventually, he landed fulltime work washing dishes at a school, trading his suit and tie for an apron and bandana.
It was humbling.
During this time, he started volunteering with a couple of friends from church to feed homeless people, and he enrolled in college, first at Seminole State and then the University of Central Florida, supporting himself with both full-time work and student loans. By 2019, he’d earned a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s in nonprofit management — and racked up over $100,000 in college debt.
He’d also met the woman he would marry in 2020. She came to volunteer at SALT and ended up working there full-time.
“He was in this relationship, he’s working a full-time job, he’s going to school and he is running SALT,” said the organization’s outreach pastor, Wilfredo Montalvo, a decade-long friend. “When I think of someone who’s humble and determined and completely dedicated, the first person I think of is Eric. .… When I came and saw everything he had done, it blew my mind, especially since for nine of the 10 years it had existed, SALT was run completely by volunteers.”
Another leap of faith
In the spring of 2021, a year into the pandemic, Camarillo wanted to quit his job again —– this time from Amazon’s human resources department — to devote all his energy to SALT. He and his team had raised $4,000 for a clothing trailer and $40,000 for a shower trailer with bathrooms; they’d hired several case workers and other staff. They’d won a $250,000 grant from the city of Orlando to operate showers and laundry services, and the Orlando Utilities Commission gave them a donation to cover the cost of installing solar panels for their operations to keep energy costs down.
“At the time, he came to me for personal advice,” said Portelli, the mayor’s advisor. “The organization was doing well, but it was not super-solidly funded yet, and I knew he had gotten married, and I didn’t think it was the best idea [to quit his Amazon job]. He did it anyway. That was really a demonstration of his faith in the mission. Every minute of every day, he lives his faith.”
Two weeks later, on April 15, National Laundry Day, SALT cut the ceremonial ribbon on a $74,000 laundry trailer with six industrial-sized washers and six dryers.
Now Camarillo spends most of his days trying to sustain what he has built and push it to the next level. His goal is the creation of a permanent supportive housing “village” of eight units, constructed out of 40-foot shipping containers, each with a kitchen, bathroom, living area and at least weekly visits from a social worker. SALT already has raised over $107,000 in donations toward the $240,000 needed.
“I feel like God continues to bring situations to my awareness, to see things that won’t allow me to grow numb to the need — like a young mother who came to us the other day who was sleeping in her car with three children,” he said. “I don’t know what’s in store for us. I don’t know all the challenges ahead. But I know we’re going to find a way to keep moving forward.”