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Sixth church joins homeless sustainability program in Forsyth

Host congregations

* Family Promise of Forsyth County has signed six churches: Good Shepherd Catholic; Freedom Tabernacle; Saints Raphael, Nicolas and Irene Greek Orthodox; Christ the King Lutheran; Midway United Methodist; and Mountain Lake. Seven more are needed.

* The organization has raised $8,835 out of at least $50,000 it needs to start.

* The next meeting is set for 7 p.m. May 21 (place TBD)

* For more information, contact Jim Leeds at

FORSYTH COUNTY — The meeting starts the same every month. A prayer and a story.

There is no lack of stories about homeless students in Forsyth County, and a small but growing community hopes there is an even larger supply of prayer to help these kids put a permanent roof over their heads.

To help answer that prayer, another church just boosted that hope.

Mountain Lake Church in north Forsyth became the sixth faith-based congregation to sign a letter of commitment for Family Promise of Forsyth County, an interfaith hospitality network that provides a sustainability and work force development program for homeless families.

They’re hoping to support people like the family two women involved in the nonprofit encountered about a month ago.

They were moving the family from a motel, where they had been staying because they lost their house, to Family Haven, a local shelter for victims of domestic violence.

But only the women could sleep there, and the shelter can save only two beds for girls suffering homelessness.

“We were putting all their possessions in the car to move, and I get an email that there’s an 18-year-old girl who slept in her car the night before,” said Jamie Rife, the school district’s homeless education liaison. “This is awful, but I had to hope she was a victim of domestic violence so I had a place to put her.”

The high school senior was, in fact, not sleeping at home in order to escape domestic violence.

But that meant one less bed for Rife’s homeless family.


Homeless ranks on the rise


Not that the family would be able to sleep in the same place anyway.

There have been 598 children enrolled in the Forsyth County school system who have experienced homelessness this school year.

That number topped 700 last year, and Rife said she expects it to do so again. She started the day with 594 and last month with 564.

These are students with parents and often siblings who are too old or young to go to a public school. Those family members are not included in the number.

Family Promise, a national organization that runs programs in 41 states — including two in neighboring Gwinnett County and one in Hall County — would combat those numbers by providing job placement services, financial budgeting advice and temporary housing to families.

Currently there is no shelter or organization that takes in entire families. There are places for women, and boys, and domestic violence victims, but a family must be split up if it suddenly cannot pay bills and is evicted. Or cannot afford repairs to a home damaged by weather.

“I take them to Gainesville and Atlanta,” said Amy Gamez, a school social worker. “Last year, toward the end of the first semester, I had five families at my schools that were living at Sun Suites [hotel] at the same time. Two or three had been there for multiple months.

“It just broke my heart.”

Seeing six people live in one hotel room led Gamez to research homeless assistance programs.

That’s how she heard about Family Promise.

“I can send them to a shelter, or sometimes they can get help or I can put them in a hotel, but [Family Promise] is sustainability, so they don’t have to continue needing help,” she said.

She has been with the school district — currently doing social work for Cumming Elementary, Otwell Middle and Forsyth Central High schools, where the homeless count is the highest in the county — for nine years.

“The thing is, I work with a lot of the same families,” she said. “If they’re in a hotel, they may be able to pay for it, but they have no way to save money to sustain themselves to get out of the situation.”

Federal standards of homelessness include those who live in hotels or motels, anyone who lives with a family member or friend, people who sleep in their car or someone who stays at a campground.

If Family Promise launches in Forsyth, 13 faith-based congregations would take turns helping up to 14 individuals for one week at a time.

Program participants must be homeless students and their families. They would eat dinner, sleep and have breakfast at the host church before taking a provided sack lunch to a centralized day center.

From the center, buses would pick students up for school while parents receive work force development services.

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

Participants are screened for ineligible conditions like criminal records, mental health and addiction and must sign a contract that they will not drink or do drugs throughout the process.

“It’s not only helping families get off the streets,” Gamez said, “but helping them build those skills to be successful so they don’t have to continue to struggle.”