Houston nonprofit brings churches together to help homeless families

bpurser@macon.comDecember 16, 2012 

WARNER ROBINS -- A nonprofit non-denominational organization has formed in Houston County to provide shelter, meals and support to homeless families through a network of churches and volunteers.

“More and more families are finding themselves in economic situations of losing jobs and homes,” said Shirley Boan, president of the board of directors for Family Promise of Greater Houston County, Inc. “What we want to do is provide them love and support and caring assurance that we’re here for them.”

Homeless families are defined as at least one parent or guardian and a child who are without a home of their own, Boan said.

Houston County schools estimates about 200 of its 27,610 students are homeless, with that number expected to reach more than 400 by the end of the school year. At the end of last school year, there were 433 homeless students, with most living in a home with two or more families. Those who live in hotels or vehicles also are considered homeless.

The new nonprofit, an affiliate of the national Family Promise organization founded in 1986, helps to address the need one family at time through a 90-day program designed to help families become self-sustaining, Boan said.

The program is expected to get off the ground in March, but that is contingent on fundraising efforts and the hiring of an executive director.

How the program would work

A host congregation would provide lodging, three meals a day and hospitality for families at their churches for one week, with the families rotating to another host congregation the following week. To date, 14 churches have agreed to be host congregations.

The meals would include a simple breakfast of cereal or doughnuts, a sack lunch at a day center and a hot meal in the evenings at the host church. Each family would have cots in a designated area.

The families would be transported in the mornings to a day center where a professional social worker would provide case management services. It’s expected that the children would catch a school bus here, and the adults would have a place to work on job applications. The day center would include phones and work space for résumé creation and job hunting. Those participating in the program would use the day center’s address and phone number on their job applications and resume. The center is also equipped with showers and laundry facilities.

Volunteers from host and support churches would be on hand 24/7. Support churches may provide financial assistance or in-kind donations and volunteers. To date, nine churches have agreed to be support churches.

Volunteer service may include cooking an evening meal, helping with homework, cleaning restrooms or spending the night with the families.

“One of the wonderful things about this program is that the churches work together, and the volunteers are able to do ministry of this kind,” Boan said. “I think it’s a wonderful and positive approach to doing ministry.”

Boan, a 72-year-old retired social worker, knows first-hand how successful the program can be. She and her husband, Roger, 75, who retired from an electronics firm, both served in a Family Promise affiliate when they lived in Ohio.

The couple took the night shift -- sleeping on cots alongside those under their care -- when it was their church’s turn to host the families.

The experience was rewarding for the couple because they were able to see the fruits of their labor as families became self-sustaining, she said.

Nationwide, about 80 percent of the families participating in Family Promise programs find permanent housing, according to Family Promise of Greater Houston County literature. The program has 171 established networks in 42 states.

A successful example

Brent Bohanan, executive director of Family Promise of Gwinnett County, said about 83 percent of families that come through the program become self-sustaining with employment and housing.

Started in April 2005, Family Promise of Gwinnett County operates two 90-day mobile shelters through its 34 participating churches and more than 1,500 volunteers. It also has an emergency shelter for women, two transitional housing units and a mentoring program that helps families for a year after the 90-day program.

“It’s an easy way to make a big impact,” Bohanan said.

But the program started off small in April 2005, with only a few churches participating and a small 600-foot day area, Bohanan said. He said the first 18 months was a struggle.

“Don’t think you’ll be here overnight,” Bohanan said. “We grew as we had more community support and funding.”

Houston County support

The Rev. Andy Cook, pastor of Shirley Hills Baptist Church in Warner Robins, is among those in Houston County who support the program. His church is among the host congregations.

“It’s a program that’s already been tested and been in place in other communities,” Cook said. “We have a model. We’re not having to create something from scratch.”

And it’s the right thing to do, he said.

“The bottom line is it’s just basic Christianity,” Cook said. “It’s very good, common sense to help people get back on their feet.”

The church plans to utilize its Christian Life Center, a multipurpose building used primarily by the church’s youth that has as small kitchen and shower facilities.

“Most of our space is not used through the week,” Cook said. “This is a very small inconvenience for us and for a very large benefit for families. ... We’re just waiting for it to get started.”

For more information about the Houston County nonprofit, call Boan at (478) 929-0769, or visit www.familypromisehoustonco.org. Tax-deductible donations may be sent to Family Promise of Greater Houston County, Inc., at PO Box 8434, Warner Robins, GA 31095-8434.

Telegraph archives were used in this article.

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