Faith-based program gives Midlands homeless families a second chance

cclick@thestate.comOctober 6, 2013 

  • Want to Help?

    For more information on Family Promise, go to www.familypromise.org. To offer assistance to the Midlands affiliate, call (803) 771-4408.

— Midlands area congregations are preparing to offer their Sunday school rooms and gymnasiums as temporary housing for homeless families in economic crisis.

The houses of worship, united under the nonprofit Family Promise of the Midlands, hopes to add an additional layer of support for the families by providing interim lodging, food and support.

Once up and running, Family Promise of the Midlands would be the seventh South Carolina affiliate of the national interfaith nonprofit organization. Family Promise operates in 41 states.

“Often these families are in the crisis of their lives,” said the Rev. Jill Duffield, who chairs the local Family Promise board. Her church, Shandon Presbyterian on Woodrow Street, is aligned with the fledgling network of other Midlands congregations to offer assistance to a limited number of families.

Family Promise expects to launch formally in January once coordinators have agreements from 13 congregations to open their churches to families for one week each quarter.

The footprint is small and not of the scale that traditional aid agencies such as the Family Shelter and St. Lawrence Place provide, but organizers hope it will be another resource for families who are evicted from their homes and find themselves on the street.

The organization expects to start out by serving 14 family members in a variety of family configurations, mainly working and middle class families who, because of a job loss or health crisis, suddenly find themselves with no place to live.

The support will include lodging, meals, homework help and support from church volunteers as well as a day center staffed by a professional social worker. There, mothers and fathers will be able to work on job skills and job applications while their children are at school.

“The goal is to keep the family together and leave with a job and a place to stay,” said the Rev. Tony McDade, who is director of the Greenville Family Promise affiliate. “Family Promise is about second chances.”

The launch comes at a pivotal moment in Columbia, where debate over dealing with the city’s adult homeless population has accelerated amid competing visions from city council and homeless advocates. Just this weekend, a 24/7 shelter opened as a temporary solution for homeless men and women, where they will be able to eat meals, be bused to and from appointments, sleep safely and get help in returning to stable lives, shelter organizers say.

Advocates call homeless families with children the “hidden homeless,” although it is the fastest-growing segment in the United States. Identifying them and finding available housing is an ongoing struggle for social workers and advocates who work with the dislocated families.

“You don’t see families sleeping on Main Street,” said Randy Covington, a retired journalist who directs USC’s Newsplex and serves on the Family Promise board. “They are shuffling around. They don’t have a permanent address.”

Sometimes, they sleep in their cars or occupy a couch at a relative’s home.

The Family Shelter on Two Notch Road is a haven for up to 15 families, and the only temporary emergency family shelter in Columbia that accepts mothers and fathers.

Executive director Rebecca Jacobson said the shelter, a United Way agency, can take children through age 17 and works to give families stability so that parents can find work and learn the skills necessary to manage a household successfully.

“Many of the families who come here have a longer-term history with family poverty and need the stability of living in one place,” she said. Families may live at the shelter for four months with discretion to extend the stay, as staff help parents develop independent living and parenting skills and money management.

Jacobson and other advocates look forward to adding Family Promise to the mix of organizations willing to lend a helping hand.

“Hopefully, they can help with the burden,” said Deborah Boone, coordinator of Richland 1’s homeless initiative.

As the school year got under way, Boone said she has been overwhelmed by the numbers of students and families coming to her office for help.

“Just for the first month of school we were averaging 76 new homeless students a week,” Boone said. “The big thing is we are seeing more and more families who are having housing crises, at risk of eviction, with water off and utilities off. We are just seeing an abundance of those kinds of issues.”

Family Promise volunteers understand the limitations of temporarily bunking inside churches.

“The move from week to week does keep families nimble,” said Greenville’s McDade. But he said something vital emerges out of that interaction between homeless families and congregations who serve them.

“It’s obviously beneficial to homeless families because they have short-term housing,” he said, as well as assistance with gaining employment. “The less obvious is how beneficial it can be to a congregation to experience poverty and family homelessness up front and personal. Just because you are homeless doesn’t mean you are hopeless.”

He said Greenville schools and shelters work closely with Family Promise and routinely make referrals. Families undergo criminal background checks and drug screenings to enter the program; Family Promise is not equipped to deal with domestic violence, he said.

Family Promise of the Midlands is set to work with organizations such as St. Lawrence Place, a transitional housing ministry of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, and Affordable Housing Resources, a Columbia nonprofit founded by Shandon Presbyterian, that currently rents four homes to low-income families.

So far, eight congregations have agreed to serve as host congregations in what will be known as the Interfaith Hospitality Network, with two more nearing a commitment. Those are predominantly Presbyterian and United Methodist, but Family Promise leaders hope to expand that list.

They are in talks with Southern Baptists, African Methodist Episcopal congregations and the two largest black congregations in Columbia, Brookland Baptist Church and Bible Way Church of Atlas Road. The South Carolina Baptist Convention also has offered its shower truck facility should a host congregation need it.

“It’s a long process to get through the church decision-making,” said Elizabeth Barber, a Family Promise board member whose church, Eastminster Presbyterian, has agreed to serve as a host site.

Family Promise has its roots in the Midlands Interfaith Homeless Action Council, established to help victims of Hurricane Katrina who arrived in Columbia in 2005. The organization has most recently been known as Light the Way.

Nationally, Family Promise claims an 80 percent success rate in finding permanent housing for those in emergency situations. McDade said Greenville regularly exceeds that figure, with about an 85 percent success rate.

Want to Help?

For more information on Family Promise, go to www.familypromise.org. To offer assistance to the Midlands affiliate, call (803) 771-4408.

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