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Forsyth sustainability program still searching for support

Host congregations

Family Promise of Forsyth County has signed five churches — Good Shepherd Catholic; Freedom Tabernacle; Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene Greek Orthodox; Christ the King Lutheran; and Midway United Methodist — to join the interfaith hospitality network. They need eight more. The organization has raised $5,810 and needs $50,000 to start. For more information, contact Jim Leeds at

FORSYTH COUNTY — Jamie Rife was having dinner with her husband two Saturdays ago when her cell phone rang. A mother called because she had nowhere she and her eighth-grade daughter could sleep.

This was not an unemployed or alcoholic woman with mental health needs. She works double shifts and her daughter goes to public school in Forsyth County.

Rife, the homeless education liaison for Forsyth County Schools, found them a hotel room. As of Thursday night, they were still there.

“We need a program that they can be in while they work for long-term self-sustainability,” Rife said.

The young girl is one of 564 students enrolled in the local school system who suffer from homelessness. A program called Family Promise of Forsyth County is trying to reverse that rising tide.

The number of homeless students in the county starts at zero at the beginning of each school year, Rife said, and increases as more are identified. Last year, it broke 700. Rife said she expects the same to happen by May.

Rife noted the number does not include siblings who are too young or old to attend a kindergarten-12thgrade school. It does not include their parents. And it does not only count those who sleep outside on the street, as is often associated with homelessness.

Federal standards also define homelessness as someone who lives in a hotel or motel, in a vehicle or with friends or family members, often on couches or floors — anyone who does not own or lease their own place.

Families now make up 40 percent of the country’s homeless population, according to the national branch of Family Promise.

Family Promise doesn’t exist in Forsyth County in practice yet, but it does in many states — 41, in fact — with the closest group being in neighboring Gwinnett County. They have two, actually. Hall County also has one, and Dawson County has one in the fundraising phase.

What Forsyth does have are five out of the 13 faith-based congregations needed to create a year-round interfaith hospitality network.

Congregations in this network would take turns — four a year — hosting 14 individuals made up of homeless students and their families for one week at a time. Between 5 p.m. and 7 a.m., they would provide dinner, socialization, a place to sleep, breakfast and a sack lunch.

During the day, the students go to school. They’re picked up from and dropped off at a centralized day center. While they’re at school, young children are cared for while the parents receive work force development services, including job search and personal finance counseling.

“This winter, we were knocking on doors at trailer parks that completely lost power and telling them to go to the Red Cross shelter,” Rife said. “There were families staying in their cars with small children. Family Promise couldn’t have helped all of them, but it could have done something.”

Damage to a house is not the only way these families are losing their homes. Wage-earners may lose their job and become unable to pay rent. They may have one or two jobs but have to pay medical bills.

Jerry Dupree, interim chairman of Family Promise, said some recent pushback on the concept may be the result of two myths.

“We’re not a shelter,” he said.

Family Promise is a program that provides job placement services and temporary housing with a goal to help families find permanent housing and sustainable independence.

Nationally, the program has nearly an 80 percent success rate.

Families are screened for mental health, criminal records and addiction. They must also sign a contract saying they will not drink or do drugs while in the program.

Confusion has also surrounded the day center, Dupree said. Freedom Tabernacle has offered its facilities for the center, but only if nothing else is found.

Dupree said they’re looking for a space that would be free of charge. Freedom Tabernacle needs to lease its building.

Saving as much money as possible is important to the group. As an official nonprofit and part of the national organization, it needs $50,000 in a bank account before serving anyone. Yearly costs once the program begins are estimated at $120,000.

As of Thursday, they had collected $5,810.

So not having to pay a lease would help. It also needs to buy a 14-passenger van before being able to start. Or have one donated.

The group’s next meeting is April 23, though the location hasn’t been determined.