Individuals who work closely with the homeless population are troubled by the growing statistics.
Brian Stewart, the network director of Family Promise of Bradley County, is one such individual.
The local affiliate day center is under the umbrella of Family Promise, a nationwide nonprofit interfaith organization.
“We work specifically with families who have children. Our focus is on the children, not on individuals,” Stewart said.
Family Promise operates out of a day center and through a partnership with 10 host churches. Up to 14 children and adults can currently be handled by the program at one time. The limit is due to shortages in both staff and space.
Stewart maintains the focus of the program is quality — not quantity.
“Our whole goal is to get them [families] in housing in three months or less. We are very short-term, temporary housing,” Stewart said. “We do not do long term, 9 to 12 months.”
Families who enter the program are expected to complete several tasks. Able adults must find employment. Ninety percent of each paycheck is set aside to pay for first month’s rent, a downpayment, and first month’s utilities.
Parents take mandatory courses on financial planning and parenting. Families move from one church to the next, week after week. Graduation is the result of meeting all requirements, including finding housing.
Stewart said he recognizes this is a difficult program.
“Every morning at 7 they have to leave the churches because those establishments need to open for business,” Stewart said. “Then every evening they need to leave at 5 p.m. to go back to the churches. That freedom of being able to come and go whenever you want is gone.”
Family Promise operates on a 13-week program with 13 host churches. Bradley County’s local office is currently maintaining the program with 10 congregations.
Rick Brogdon, senior pastor at Durkee Road Church of God of Prophecy, said the difference in churches takes a toll on the program.
“If you have 13 churches, then that calls for one time a quarter you will have to be a host,” Brogdon said.
“With Cleveland only having 10, then a church will host more than once or a family will be placed in a hotel, which puts a drain on the budget.”
There are no charges associated for families within the program. Needs are met through a network of churches and interested parties.
Stewart said there are 10 additional “support churches” which help financially and sometimes host families overnight. These churches are not regular hosts.
Host churches create makeshift bedrooms for the families within their respective buildings. Dinner and fellowship is provided by members of the congregation Sunday through Saturday. Members take turns staying with the families overnight in the church.
Brogdon said his church benefits from the program more than the families.
“It was perfect timing. It was a time when we were looking to move beyond the four walls,” Brogdon said. “... We only used the church two times out of the week, but now we have life on our properties more than just two times a week.”
He said church members are able to see the effect of their time through this, “mission in our own backyard.” The program has deepened relationships amongst his congregation.
“I was amazed by how quick the program seemed to mesh us together. It caused a closeness we really needed,” Brogdon said. “The experience did more for us than we did for it.”
“These are people who church members will be able to see again,” Brogdon said. “They will see them in Walmart, Bi-lo, in a restaurant and they can say, ‘Hey, these are people we helped.’”
The local success rate is about 60 percent, Stewart said. He continues to contact the families up to a year after their graduation. Each family is equipped with which programs in town can offer them anything from diapers to help with utilities.
“There is a specific needs list that comes out when a family graduates,” Stewart said. “One family graduated and needed furniture for their whole apartment. I put out a needs list and in three days we completely furnished a four-bedroom apartment. I am talking about the works — laundry units and everything.”
Stewart said he understands things are still tough for the families even after graduation. The same circumstances they found themselves in before the program could occur again.
“These families are not homeless because they necessarily did anything wrong,” Stewart said.
Family Promise often helps families who are suffering from the loss of a job, the housing market crash, or even the recent tornados.
“Our current family was doing fine and then things began piling up on them. [The mother] always says, ‘We just needed a breath of fresh air. We were drowning,’” Stewart said. ‘“We just needed somewhere to go so we could pay off our bills and breathe.’”
Stewart is surprised by residents of Bradley County who do not know about the homeless population in the area.
“They think it is only in larger cities,” Stewart said. “No, there is a homeless population in this county. The fastest growing segment of the homeless population are homeless families with children. In fact, the fastest growing segment of that [population] are children under the age of 5.”
Future plans for the program include a larger day center and additions to staff, which currently consists only of Stewart.