The next meeting of Family Promise of Forsyth County is set for 7 p.m. Feb. 26 at Bethelview United Methodist Church.
FORSYTH COUNTY — Forsyth County’s first homeless shelter is two steps closer to becoming a reality.
That reality would support children and their families, who many leading the effort to bring an interfaith network of host churches to fruition say are being pushed into the shadows.
Two churches are those steps, as Christ the King Lutheran and Midway United Methodist signed on to bring a Family Promise program to Forsyth County.
The nationwide organization involves the services of churches and the community to provide shelter, food and support to low-income and homeless families.
As the school system recently passed the halfway point of the 2014-15 school year, 471 students have met the federal definition of homelessness.
That number — which counts only students in kindergarten through 12th grade and not their younger siblings or parents or adults on their own — increased from 418 by the time school closed for the holidays in December. As it did last year, that number is expected to top 700 by late May, said the district’s homeless liaison, Jamie Rife.
“We have so many resources in this county, from food to clothing to school supplies,” Rife said Thursday during the monthly Family Promise meeting. “This is the one thing I don’t have.”
She has to send families — who she calls her families and her children — out of the county to sleep, which disrupts students’ school schedules and parents’ jobs. Often, siblings are split up just to get a roof over their head.
Although many may not be aware, she said, Forsyth has among the highest rates of children entering the foster care system due to lack of housing. It also has a higher rate of homelessness than its southern neighbor Fulton County.
Maureen Wareham, a retired high school counselor for the district, said about 12 people came to last month’s meeting. Thursday, there were about 50 to 60 from various churches.
Good Shepherd Catholic, Freedom Tabernacle and Saints Raphael, Nicolas, and Irene Greek Orthodox had already joined the effort, bringing the total number to five.
Family Promise of Forsyth County, already approved as a nonprofit, needs eight more before it can begin services.
An Interfaith Hospitality Network, or IHN, would house 14 individuals on a weekly rotation through each church. The host congregation would provide lodging and meals.
Freedom Tabernacle has agreed to be site of the day center, as required by the national organization.
Those in the program would be driven there each day, where they could shower, do laundry, tend to pre-school children and meet school buses for students. A professional social worker, the network’s director and financial services are centralized there, too.
Interfaith Hospitality Networks currently operate in 41 states, including neighboring Hall and nearby Cobb counties.
Anyone entering the program must pass a drug and background test, cannot drink alcohol during the program and may be submitted to random drug tests. Families must also put up to 80 percent of their income in a bank.
Jerry Dupree, board chairman for the nonprofit, said it takes an average of 65 days in the program for families nationwide to get back into a home.
But in much less time, children and families can become homeless and are not always those who sleep on the street.
The U.S. Department of Education determines homelessness based on four living situations.
The situations range from sleeping unsheltered on the street to paying daily rent at a hotel or staying with a relative or friend.
“It’s simply a family without a home of their own,” Dupree said.
Amy Gamez, a school social worker and initiator of the project, said she recently had a student’s mother face eviction because she lost her job. Such families often cannot afford insurance, so “when they lose [something], they lose everything.”
She said many homeless families have two working parents who just cannot afford a permanent residence in this affluent county.
Jim Leeds, a committee member, said they are working on fundraising efforts in conjunction with finding churches. The nonprofit must secure at least $50,000 before proceeding with hosting families.
While the process is far from over, Rife and the others said they are hopeful they will bring Family Promise to Forsyth County. The longest part of the process is getting through red tape to sign committals from churches, but they set this Christmas as a goal.
“I desperately need this,” Rife said, “so I can look [families] in the face and tell them I have somewhere for them to go.”