By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published January 19, 2012
St. Pius X Church has allied with a dozen other congregations in Rockdale and Newton counties to start a small transitional housing program for homeless families living in the community.
Elaine Brown, whose family is one of the first to enter Family Promise of NewRock, said, “God put us in the right place. We ended up here.”
Her husband, Adrian, had been out of work, but in late December, about six weeks after they entered the Family Promise program, he was hired to work at a medical warehouse in Tucker. Their daughters, ages 11 and 8, have been able to stay in their elementary school; their 4-year-old son is in a pre-kindergarten program. Elaine Brown is actively looking for a job.
The family moved to Georgia from Wisconsin, thinking Brown could get established as a real estate broker here, Mrs. Brown said.
“We thought he would be able to make money right away, but not so,” she said. “You have to pay a lot of fees as a broker. A lot of our money went into that.”
Eventually “the money ran out.” They lived with his sister temporarily, but did not want to be a burden while they got back on their feet. They started calling shelters, but found out most separate men from women, even when the couple is married and has children. They got down to their “last resort,” talking about splitting up the family temporarily, before being accepted by the new Rockdale program in November.
“This is a really good program,” Mrs. Brown said.
Local Churches Host Families
To start a Family Promise affiliate, 13 congregations in the area commit to hosting homeless families nightly for a week, four times a year, at their church facility. The host congregation provides dinner, sleeping facilities at the church, a simple breakfast and ingredients for lunch to go. Volunteers also offer hospitality, joining the families for dinner, visiting with the adults, helping children with homework, playing games or socializing in a low-key way. Two volunteers stay overnight. At the end of the week, another congregation is host.
The Browns are one of three families, a total of 13 people, in the Rockdale-Newton program, which can serve 14 at most. Two single mothers with children make up the other families.
They spend the day at another nonprofit in Conyers, the Lighthouse Village, where adults who are job hunting can use computers to search leads and preschool children have a place to play and nap while their siblings are at school.
The full-time Family Promise program director, Erin White, and a part-time caseworker help the families set goals to get them back to independent living by finding jobs and affordable housing and taking life skills classes. Family Promise is transitional, designed to help people out of homelessness as quickly as possible.
In addition to Catholic, the congregations include Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and nondenominational evangelical churches. The program started Nov. 13.
That month there were 157 students in the Rockdale public school system classified as homeless and 150 in the Newton system, White said.
“Those are just the families the schools are aware of. There may be others,” she said.
She pointed out the number of local children who are homeless is larger than the school count, since that doesn’t include preschoolers. At Family Promise of NewRock, six of the nine children there are under 5. Nationally 84 percent of the children in Family Promise programs are under 5, White said.
Schools realize families are homeless through what teachers observe or when parents apply for school lunch programs or bus transportation, White said. School buses pick up children every day from extended stay motels, she said.
When families live there, usually a parent is working but not making enough money to afford the security deposit for apartment rent and utilities, White said.
Some families are living in their car.
“If you go to the Walmart parking lot early in the morning, you will see kids coming out with toothbrushes in their hands. They have gone in to clean up and get ready for school,” she said.
Some are depending on a friend or relative for a temporary place to sleep. Referrals are coming from the schools, social services agencies, the St. Vincent de Paul Society and word-of-mouth, White said.
“Family Promise has not yet touched all of the homeless population in the county. There is not yet enough of an awareness of what we do,” she said.
Father John Kieran said that getting school district statistics was part of the research done over the last two years. It has taken that long to establish the coalition of churches. An assistant pastor at Epiphany Lutheran Church who was familiar with Family Promise initiated the Rockdale-Newton project to address homelessness.
“It’s real,” the St. Pius pastor said Jan. 9. “That came home to me in a big way Sunday. I got a call from a mother who said she had been sleeping in a tent with her 14-year-old son in woods in the city of Conyers. … I helped her to get to a place of shelter for the night last night.”
“Homeless families are a real situation,” he said.
‘Preach The Gospel Without Words’
For people unsure about a church helping families in crisis, Family Promise focuses on families who are committed to moving ahead and where there is the most unobstructed path back to independent living.
Families are interviewed and have to clear criminal and background screening, be free of drug and alcohol abuse and not in a current domestic violence situation, which is a reality other programs are better designed to serve. Parents commit to a set of goals aimed at independence and meet regularly with staff to evaluate progress toward their goals.
“I think it is a very viable program,” Father Kieran said.
The lay volunteers at the churches are the heart of the program.
“It takes about 50 to 60 (volunteers) to house the people for a week. So from that perspective, you are getting a lot of people involved from the community,” he added.
Parishioner Kathy Pusch is coordinating the volunteers at St. Pius X, which will host for the first time Feb. 12. She went to the first meeting where Family Promise of NewRock was discussed and now serves on its board of directors.
“To me, the first time I heard about it, it was like a no-brainer. We need to do this. If we don’t do this, we are wrong,” Pusch said. “I tend to be passionate about a lot of things. I just feel like it should be done. If I have the ability to help, I should be helping. It is nothing personal at all. I have never been homeless or even close to it.”
“This is a serious problem most of us are just unaware of,” she said.
In the first few weeks, a guest who was nine months pregnant, gave birth to her baby, born weighing just a little over four pounds. She and her baby were able to move in with a grandmother afterward. Pusch said how grateful she was Family Promise was open when the woman needed shelter.
She said Family Promise is “a faith-based program, but it cannot be about religion.”
Some churches didn’t want to be involved because they would not be permitted to proselytize guests, and some civic groups were hesitant to connect with it because church congregations are the hosts.
Churches and individuals who are involved have the perspective “you can preach the Gospel without words,” Pusch said.
“I think everyone’s heart is in the right place. The congregations have been incredibly supportive. When their week is done, they want to do it again. … I think everyone gets into it. This is the right way to treat people. … Everyone I have worked with wants to do the right thing for these people. It is really to help the family and the children,” she said.
Mrs. Brown brought up that she appreciates that the program is hosted by churches.
“All the congregations and all the people are excellent. They treat us very well,” she said. “The main thing of it is—it is spiritual. We have been saved. We have always put God first. That is the most important to me. They help people with their spiritual walk.”
Family Promise started in New Jersey in 1986 and there are now 171 affiliates around the country. St. Patrick Church in Norcross and St. Oliver Plunkett Church in Snellville are host congregations for a Gwinnett County affiliate.
“The model works—community taking care of community and doing so mostly with volunteers,” said White, who previously worked as liaison to foster parents in Rockdale County for the Fanning Institute at the University of Georgia.
“That is a really neat aspect of the program to me. I have seen a tremendous impact on the volunteers who may have only volunteered for one day,” she said. “It puts a face to homelessness. It breaks down stereotypes we all have. It gives volunteers an opportunity to serve someone very much like themselves with the gifts God gave them.”
“A person with the gift of hospitality—to be able to provide a meal to a homeless person can be a tremendous gift. To do so at your house of worship is another blessing. People who might be scared to go to a soup kitchen downtown might not mind bringing in a side dish to their church one night,” White said.
Congregations can help in many ways, not just by being a host congregation.
“We have congregations just helping to provide meals. We have a tiny congregation sending all our families ice-skating … in downtown Conyers. None of the kids has ever been ice-skating before. Someone donated movie passes,” White said.
Just before Christmas they put the word out that they would like to give the parents a few gift cards so they could buy one or two Christmas presents for their children. The Whistle Post restaurant in Conyers took up donations that not only covered the gift cards, but enough for one parent to buy shoes and a shirt for work.
“I have the best seat in the house,” White said. “I am the first person who gets to rejoice when someone gets a job and see all the blessings that come the way of the families. … I have seen people grow … the opportunity to see a baby born in the program.”
When one congregation unexpectedly could not participate as planned, “it was a blessing to see people from all over the network help out,” she said.
“I have been blown away by the hospitality this community has to offer and by the ability of the program to affect change in people’s lives. My hope is we can reach more families in this community and be able to provide resources so families can achieve independence and stability. My hope is to find more partners in the community.”
Tyesha Appleberry, 21, the mother of two children, 3 years old and 8 months old, started a new job in January after successfully completing a series of job interviews while in Family Promise of
NewRock. She said the support from the church congregations has been very meaningful to her.
“We have been to five or six different churches. Everyone is so loving and makes me and my kids feel like family,” she said. “Erin is a great person. I don’t feel like I am homeless. We do a lot of stuff. … My kids are always entertained. At nighttime we have dinner. We sit interacting with other people.”
The best part of Family Promise is “having somewhere to lay our heads at night,” she said.