Restoring Balance for Homeless Families of Beaufort County
January 2019 Issue
By Suzanne Eisinger Photography by Christian Lee
Imagine you just lost your job. Perhaps you, or a family member, were sick and you missed too many days at work. Perhaps your car broke down and you had no way of getting to work. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The paychecks stop coming and the bills continue without pause, until finally the letter you’ve been dreading arrives. You look up from the eviction notice and see the faces of your children staring back at you, their eyes mirroring the fear in yours.
Hidden in Plain Sight
According to 2016 Federal data, children and their families account for more than 35 percent of the homeless population in this country and represent its fastest growing segment. In Beaufort County alone, there are more than 600 homeless children (as identified by the federal McKinney-Vento Act report for Beaufort County Schools). It is a statistic that seems, at first glance, impossible. Yet, because of the fluid living arrangements many of these families must endure—continually moving from the homes of friends or family to shelters, motels or ‘unsheltered’ alternatives such as cars—we don’t always see the problem in front of our faces.
Fortunately, there is a place for families facing homelessness to turn. Family Promise, which opened its doors in July 2008, is the only shelter of its kind in Beaufort County. Its mission is to provide temporary shelter, family stability, and permanent housing solutions for homeless children and their families. Family Promise operates with one simple goal: that every child will have a home.
According to Executive Director Lynda Halpern, Family Promise provides comprehensive solutions to homelessness, not quick fixes or handouts. Lasting independence requires the careful balancing of basic needs, including housing, employment, transportation, childcare/education, and healthcare. Take away even one of these components and the scales are tipped. For financially vulnerable families, this balance is even more tenuous. It takes little—a sick child, the loss of a job—to bring them to the brink of homelessness.
By partnering with interfaith and secular organizations throughout the community, Family Promise is able to give families the skills and resources they need to strike a successful balance. “It’s such an incredibly generous community,” Lynda says. “Frankly, we could not do it without them.” Working with four families at a time, Family Promise has assisted 420 individuals during its ten years of operation.
Many adults who come to the program are themselves the products of generational poverty. For that reason, it is vital that families receive the guidance and training necessary in making positive life choices so the cycle of poverty and homelessness is broken for future generations. Jennifer Coleman, MSW, is the case manager for Family Promise and is instrumental in guiding and supporting their guests (as they are called in the program). Known as Miss Jenn, or more tellingly, Mom, Jennifer is usually the first and last contact families have in their yearlong journey to independence.
Lynda describes Jennifer as the perfect combination of kindness, patience, and tough-love. “I don’t know that I’ve met a more caring person,” Lynda said. “She receives calls day and night. They are getting support (from her) they never got from their own parents.” Not surprisingly, Jennifer, who has been with the program for two years, feels just as attached to them. “This is my family,” she said. Still, she insists that her job is not to change them. “My job is to assist them in making healthier and better choices for their lives.”
Adults, many of whom are single mothers, must be willing and able to work and submit to drug and background checks before entering the program. The Day Center, located in downtown Bluffton, is where families can do laundry, store their belongings, conduct job and housing searches in the computer center, and have weekly case management meetings with Jennifer. Guests must also attend life skills programs on topics such as financial management, parenting, anger management, and coping skills. For those needing additional help, a family counselor has been recently added to the staff.
Upon arrival, children are enrolled in school or day care and receive any needed health care or testing if developmental delays are suspected. Adult guests begin job searches immediately with support by both Jennifer and outside organizations, such as SC Works, on how to complete résumés and applications, contact employers, etc.
Securing a job is often the easiest piece of the puzzle. More difficult is budgeting, Lynda said. Many of these families depend on hourly wages, so a sick child can mean the loss of a day’s pay. Families must learn the importance of budgeting so occasional setbacks don’t result in disaster. “Saving for a rainy day, because it will come,” Lynda explained. Fortunately, Family Promise and its many community partners are able to supply most of the families’ needs during their stay, allowing them to save their earnings. Just to be sure, though, Jennifer meets regularly with guests to review bank statements and receipts.
Each night, families are transported by the Family Promise bus to their temporary overnight lodgings, made possible by the generosity of more than 30 local congregations. Rotating weekly, congregations convert available office or nursery space into private areas where the families can stay together. Additional congregations provide meals and companionship. The next morning, the bus returns to drop them off at school, work, or the Day Center.
Once adults have secured a job and saved some money, it is time to look for permanent housing. Unfortunately, the rising cost of living in this area presents the biggest obstacle for homeless families. “The housing crunch of 2017 really hit us,” Lynda said, indicating that families’ earnings could not keep pace with rising area rents.
While families must qualify for housing on their own (based on their earnings), Family Promise agrees to pay a portion of the family’s rent for the first year, as well as security deposits and other move-in expenses, so they can continue to save money. In exchange, families agree to participate in the “Staying on Track” program, which involves regular case management of their finances and ensures that the children are receiving adequate care.
Put simply, this is a program that works—90 percent of families are still in their permanent housing after one year. By providing families with the support, stability and guidance they so desperately need, Family Promise is delivering on its promise that every child will have a home—and the hope of a brighter future.
To help, contact Lynda Halpern at (843) 815-4211 or visit www.familypromisebeaufortcounty.org.