Newly appointed Family Promise of Bradley County Director Eva VanHook is fighting against more than just the trials of a new position. She is challenging the deeply ingrained stereotypes of the homeless held by local residents.
“Most people think about the crazy guy with the crazy hair who smells like alcohol,” VanHook said. “That is not who we are talking about helping.”
The local nonprofit’s target participants will not be found walking the streets. They are searching for a job, or working in an overworked, underpaid position. These potential participants are often newly homeless. Some are offered a couch at a friend’s house. Others have enough money to live at a local extended-stay motel.
VanHook has worked with the organization for several years. She has been the volunteer coordinator, case manager and interim director following Brian Stewart’s leave.
Her time with the program has given her a clear idea of the biases held by society toward both the economically disadvantaged and the homeless.
“There is always the ‘They should be able to take care of themselves’ [mindset],” VanHook said. “Well, yeah, that is true, but if you are working minimum wage, 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year and you never miss anything [in terms of work], you are still making way under the poverty line for a family of four.”
Added VanHook, “I don’t even think you can support two on that.”
Family Promise operates on a 13-week program. Host churches sign up to provide a week of breakfasts, dinners and nighttime shelter for the participants. Sunday school classrooms transform into makeshift bedrooms. Beds, cots and rollaways are set up alongside miscellaneous furniture owned by the churches. Members of the church visit with the families in the evening to share about their lives, and sometimes, their faith.
There are currently 11 host churches in Bradley County’s Family Promise program. Other churches have chosen to donate their time and items in lieu of becoming a host. VanHook routinely meets with and beseeches the more than 100 local churches to get involved either as a host church or through donations.
She tries to explain how the families go from having an apartment to being homeless.
“Things get so overwhelming so very quickly. It would just take an illness for a lot of people,” VanHook said. “If you have a major illness that puts you in the hospital for a while, that is going to knock you down for a bit.”
She explained the organization’s efforts help more than just the current family unit. Intervention today will alter tomorrow’s mindset of generational poverty. Participants see there is another way to live.
A common factor of homeless families is a general lack of understanding of finances. Parents have not been educated on how to make and keep a budget. Family Promise ensures parents receive this training.
According to VanHook, partnerships in the community are supplementing these teachings in areas like finance, parenting and resume writing.
“That is why we partner with other groups in the community, like UT Extension,” VanHook said. “I am really excited because I want to connect [UT Extension] with the family we have right now.”
Additional community partners include New Hope Pregnancy Center, The Caring Place and the Refuge Center.
VanHook also hopes to benefit Family Promise through her current studies at Lee University. She will soon be graduating with a master’s of counseling in the Holistic Child Development program. She said the program has already been helpful.
“You can see a lot from a child,” VanHook said. “Parents interviewing for the program can hide a lot of stuff or present a brave face, but kids do not know how to.”
She is determined to do as much work with the children in the program as is already being done with the adults.
“My goal with Family Promise is to stop the poverty and homeless cycle of the children who come into this program,” VanHook said. “They need to see there is a way to get an education, there is support in the community, there are people who love them outside of their family.”
More information can be found by visiting the local nonprofit’s website familypromisebradley.org or by calling its office at 423-650-4106. Volunteers can either contact the office or look for opportunities online at www.volunteerocoee.org.