When someone mentions the word homeless, what picture first comes into your mind? A person huddled under a bridge in a sleeping bag or lying on a park bench next to a grocery cart with a few belongings; or perhaps a person standing on the street corner holding cardboard sign that reads, “Hungry. Anything Helps.” While these are tragic pictures of the reality of homelessness in our country, many people are homeless in less overt ways all around us.
In its simplest form, a person is homeless if they lack stable housing.[i] This situation may include a wide range of circumstances, from living on the street, to staying in a shelter or transitional house, to doubling-up with family members or friends for a short period of time. The stark reality is that those who are homeless face instability, and this takes a toll on people, especially children.
Georgia has a number of organizations that work to address the issue of homelessness. One notable organization, Family Promise of Gwinnett County, Inc. (Family Promise), focuses specifically on addressing the needs of families that have become homeless due to a temporary change in circumstances like losing a job. This interfaith non-profit is part of a national organization founded in 1986 which has 182 local organizations nation-wide. Family Promise’s mission is “to mobilize communities of congregations that partner with social service agencies to end homelessness – one family at a time.”[ii]
Family Promise stands as one of the few shelter programs in Gwinnett that specifically target homeless families. Their emphasis on families as opposed to individuals is rooted in the reality that families with children are among the fastest growing segments of the homeless population.[iii] Estimates in Gwinnett County show that 60 percent of the homeless family population consists of children, and 50 percent of these children are under the age of six. This reality is reflected in the Gwinnett County School System which accommodated over 3,000 homeless students during the 2011-2012.[iv]
Most of the families served by Family Promise are single-parent households, and 60 percent of their guests have experienced situational homelessness before.[vi] Families must go through a thorough interview process to qualify for the 30 to 90 days shelter program, which involves a review of their work history, evictions, criminal background, and drug history. In addition, families must have a child under 18 years of age to qualify for the program, and at least one person in the household is required to have at least a part-time job during their stay.
Families stay in the program 51-55 days on average. They must move to a new host church every week as a way preventing them from becoming too comfortable and as a way of balancing the demand placed upon the host churches. Participants are required to actively search for a job and to work regularly once they obtain one. Typical jobs that participants obtain include fast food service, retail, housekeeping, landscaping, and customer service.
In 2013, Family Promise served a total of 38 families of whom 74 percent graduated from the program. Of these graduates, 55 percent had a job and 64 percent had a place to live upon leaving the program.[vii]
Chuck Ferraro, executive director of Family Promise, estimates that there are more than 400 churches of various sizes in Gwinnett. His job is to recruit these churches to be partners by agreeing to house up to four homeless families in their church building for one week out of the year. Currently, families rotate weekly among 30 Host Congregations in the network. Each host congregation is responsible for providing lodging, three meals a day, and general hospitality three to four times a year. Lodging consists of church classrooms and other open rooms in the building that can be converted into living spaces for these families during the week. Churches are able to do this in areas of their buildings that require limited use during the week.
Ferraro said that if he can get thirteen churches committed to housing a homeless family once a quarter, the needs of families that they serve could be covered for an entire year. However, getting churches to make this sort of commitment is a major challenge, he expressed. They are often pulled in a variety of directions when it comes to ministry focuses, and housing homeless families is not always a popular draw (despite the fact that caring for the poor is a central mission of the Church, he argues).
Nonetheless, Ferraro explained that there are ample opportunities for congregations to be involved in the work besides hosting families, and these include providing regular volunteers and funding. Volunteers are essential to the success of Family Promise as they provide a wide range of services that keep the program in operation, from cooking and serving meals, to playing with children and helping them with homework, to interacting with guests and providing overnight security.
As a way of addressing the needs of families beyond the immediate shelter program, Family Promise has created an aftercare program that supports families for up to a year after their time in the shelter program. Families who enter the aftercare program will receive case management, parenting and nutrition classes, and financial support that will help them on their pathway toward self-sustainability. The organization is looking to target twelve families per year for this program.
Addressing the needs of homeless families can be an overwhelming task. However, when members of a community join together to serve in the unique capacity that each is able, a tangible and significant difference can be made in the life and trajectory of a family.
[i] National Health Care for the Homeless Council, “What is the official definition of homelessness?” accessed June 23, 2014, http://www.nhchc.org/faq/official-definition-homelessness/.
[ii] Family Promise of Gwinnett County, Inc., “A Recovery & Sustainability Program for Homeless Families,” Brochure, received June 6, 2014.
[iii] National Coalition for the Homeless, “Who is Homeless?” Fact Sheet, July 2009, accessed June 23, 2014, http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/who.html.
[iv] Family Promise of Gwinnett County, Inc., “A Recovery & Sustainability Program.”
[v] Ellen L. Bassuk et al., America’s Youngest Outcasts 2010: State Report Card on Child Homelessness, The National Center on Family Homelessness, December 2011, 35, http://www.homelesschildrenamerica.org/media/NCFH_AmericaOutcast2010_web.pdf.
[vi] Interview with Chuck Ferraro, Executive Director at Family Promise of Gwinnett County, June 6, 2014.
[vii] Family Promise of Gwinnett County, Inc., “A Recovery & Sustainability Program.”