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Churches may unify to aid the homeless

Family Promise program takes 18-24 months to set up

POSTED: January 31, 2011 11:35 p.m.

Several Gainesville churches have decided it's time to defeat homelessness in the city.

More than 50 people from 10 local churches met at Gainesville United Methodist Church on Monday night to talk about a national program that could help them host families.

The Family Promise program, with 162 networks in the nation, provides shelter, meals and support for homeless families in the community. Under the setup, 13 local churches would provide overnight lodging and volunteers who cook meals, with each church signing up for four weeks of service per year.

"When you start talking about homeless families, we don't hear families, we think of somebody with a sign or someone panhandling," said Tom Cioffi, board president of the Family Promise network in Gwinnett County through Lawrenceville First United Methodist Church.

"Of all the homeless in the U.S., 41 percent are in a family unit, and 60 percent are children. The average age of homelessness in our program is 9 years old."

Under the program, the churches give space for three or four families to sleep overnight, provide meals and transport them to a daytime center for counseling and help from social workers.

"They really just need that transitional space to make them feel safe until they can get back up on their feet," Cioffi said. "It takes 35 to 50 individuals to make an entire week run at a church, and one volunteer serves two hours for four times a year. It seems really tough to say ‘no' when you put it like that."

The Family Promise program takes 18 to 24 months to set up in a community in order to recruit the 13 churches, raise about $125,000 in money for the first year and secure plenty of volunteers. Monday night's meeting was the first of many sessions to gauge interest from Hall County's church groups.

"We really want to give housing and hopefully a fresh start for those who have found life difficult in the past few months and even past few years," said Lindsey McCamy, who is heading up Gainesville's efforts through Gainesville United Methodist Church.

Several people asked questions about the volunteer roles, success rates and how families are chosen.

"We screen the families for alcohol and drug problems, mental disease and criminal backgrounds before we send them into the program," Cioffi said.

"Volunteers are not equipped to handle a schizophrenic or alcoholic, and those programs exist elsewhere. I'm not saying they don't need help, but we're a different program model that helps families right on the edge."

Most families stay in the program for nine weeks.

Gwinnett County's program saw a 76 percent success rate in 2009, with those families finding a job and getting into a permanent home or apartment.

"Our church was apprehensive at first, but it came together," said Pat Lee, McCamy's mother and a church member at Dalton First United Methodist Church. "I do so little. I take food for one meal during that one week, and it works. It's such a blessing in the community, and you can see what it means to the families."

Gainesville United Methodist Church will continue to hold meetings, with the next one scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Feb. 21. Gainesville City Council members George Wangemann and Myrtle Figueras took notes at Monday's meeting and plan to attend upcoming meetings.

Nanci Hicks, pastor at Mossy Creek United Methodist Church in Cleveland, saw the Family Promise program work at a previous church she attended in another state.

"I pastored a church with about 30 members, where the average age was 65. Small churches can do it, too," she said. "I'm part of White County's task force on homelessness, and we're looking into bringing a program like this to this area. I've seen it work."

 



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