Forsyth County residents have repeatedly shown their generosity and willingness to help those in need during the holiday season, but that need remains for many families long after the Christmas lights are taken down.
Even with the high level of affluence Forsyth enjoys, there are still families who don’t know where their next meal will come from or what roof they will sleep under tomorrow night. A group of residents are trying to open the county’s first homeless shelter to serve these families year-round.
The school system had identified 418 students who met the federal definition of homelessness by the time they left for winter break. That number is expected to break 700 by the end of the school year, said the district’s homeless liaison, Jamie Rife, as it did last year.
The number starts at zero each school year and grows from there, accounting for families who suddenly lose their home and possibly re-identifying students from previous years.
“We do not have an actual homeless shelter in Forsyth County,” Rife said. “We have several shelters, including those for teens, a domestic violence shelter, rehabilitation shelters, and those which serve other very vital community needs.”
But no place where an entire family can stay together.
“A sense of community”
Rife is a leading voice, along with the YMCA’s Jerry Dupree – in the effort to bring a Family Promise program to Forsyth County. The shelter would be part of a nationwide organization to involve the services of churches and the community to provide shelter, food and support to low-income and homeless families.
“Forsyth County has a desperate need for this kind of assistance for our families,” said Amy Gamez, a school social worker and initiator of the project.
The Good Shepherd Catholic Church, Freedom Tabernacle and Saints Raphael, Nicholas, and Irene Greek Orthodox Church have already joined the effort. Rife said the goal is to involve 10 more churches to create the county’s Interfaith Hospitality Network, or IHN.
To start, 14 individuals would be hosted on a weekly rotation through each church. The host congregation provides lodging and three meals a day.
The national organization requires a day care center to be established as a central, permanent base for families. Freedom Tabernacle has agreed to host the center, where the IHN director and a professional social worker are stationed. Guests are bused to the center each day to shower, do laundry, tend to pre-school children and meet school buses for older students.
“The center provides guests with a mailing address and a base for housing and employment searches. Many guests are employed during the day, and older children attend school,” said the Family Promise website.
Volunteers cook and serve meals, mentor children, offer families overnight stays in their home, offer resume writing and financial counseling and simply are there for children and their families, “showing them compassion and respect and sharing a sense of community.”
IHNs currently operate in 41 states, the website said. Rife said neighboring Hall County and nearby Cobb County “have ones, and they’ve been successful.”
The many faces of homelessness
Communities often don’t realize how many children and families are homeless because the designation can mean more than those who sleep on the street.
The U.S. Department of Education determines homelessness based on four living situations, Rife said. Perhaps the most noticeable group is of those who stay in other shelters, including Bald Ridge Lodge, Abba House and Jesse’s House.
Nationwide, Rife said, most homeless families “couch-surf.” They usually lose their house due to an economic situation and double-up with another family, whether relatives or another low-income family.
A lack of affordable housing in Forsyth County often leads them to cram three or more families in one house or apartment, Rife said.
“These kids usually don’t have a bedroom. They’re sleeping in the living rooms, in bunk beds in dining rooms,” Rife said.
A third designation are those families who stay in the county’s hotels and motels, which offer a cheaper alternative on a day-to-day basis.
And then there are the “unsheltered” homeless families, those who live in a campground, car or church office. Rife said she has a family in the school system who she found living in a tent with young children.
The longest part of the process to bring Family Promise to the Forsyth community is getting through the red tape to sign churches on, Rife said.
Rife and YMCA’s Dupree are meeting with the Pastoral Committee on Jan. 6 in the hopes of gaining further support from the faith community.
She said she would love to see the program open by next year’s holiday season.
Family Promise of Forsyth’s monthly meeting will convene at the end of January. Updates and more information can be found on their Facebook page at facebook.com/familypromiseforsythcounty.