One group of students was not entirely focused on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests given in Effingham County schools over the past several days.
However, school district social worker Jackie Brown says, it’s not because the students are lazy or disrespectful.
It’s because they’re homeless.
“They can’t possibly think about how they’re doing on a math test or what they’re doing for homework when their mom is suffering and they’re hungry,” said Brown, the school district’s homeless liaison. “That’s the farthest thing from their mind when their stomach is growling, or they don’t have adequate clothes to wear to school or the supplies to take to school.”
The Effingham County School System has identified 145 students, from 73 families, as homeless, Brown said.
“They’re everyday people who are trying to work hard and trying to make it,” she said, “but with the economy now, they’re having a hard time.”
Several churches, the United Way, the school district and local volunteers are reaching out to the county’s homeless, by forming an Effingham chapter of Family Promise. Family Promise, an organization that assists homeless and low-income families, has affiliates in 41 states, including one in Savannah.
Family Promise of Effingham County has been meeting monthly since January and is in the process of raising money and finalizing its 501(c)3 incorporation status. A key element to launching Family Promise is securing churches to host homeless families as they get back on their feet.
“The first time I heard these (homeless) numbers, it was shocking to hear,” said Brian Dickey, a Family Promise volunteer serving as the Effingham group leader. “We’re here to drive homelessness out of Effingham and provide permanent places to live and permanent employment.”
Family Promise needs at least 13 Effingham County churches to serve as hosts and has commitments from eight so far, Dickey said. Each church will host families for a week at a time, and having 13 churches would enable each church to host once per quarter.
“Our goal is 13, but we won’t stop at 13,” said Daryl Brown, pastor of Guyton United Methodist Church, one of the churches onboard to participate.
Churches will host families, up to 14 people at a time, from Sunday evening to the following Sunday morning. The church serves the family dinner each night and gives them a place to sleep, with Family Promise providing the beds.
The families are not at the host church during the day, though. The children attend school and the adults spend the day at work or at the Family Promise day center.
The day center provides the families showers, closet space and an office area/computer lab to look for employment or fill out housing applications. Each family is assigned a case manager to offer guidance and monitor progress.
“That’s where the work of ending homelessness takes place,” said LaVanda Brown, the day center director for Family Promise of Chatham County.
LaVanda Brown was one of three panelists — along with Daryl Brown and Rev. Mary Beene of Faith Presbyterian Church in Rincon — who spoke Tuesday at Family Promise of Effingham County’s April meeting. She emphasized that Family Promise is short-term — clients are in the program for an average of 60 days before securing both a job and adequate housing.
“We realize we’re not for every homeless family,” LaVanda Brown said.
“Sixty days on average is amazing when you think about it,” said Bonnie Dixon, the Effingham County area director for United Way of the Coastal Empire. “It’s such intense case management.”
Along with host churches, Family Promise needs financial donors. Before the Effingham chapter can begin serving families, Dickey said, it needs to raise at least $90,000 toward expenses such as a day center, a passenger van, beds and a full-time paid director.
Beene told the crowd at the meeting that, based on Family Promise’s results in other communities, securing the host churches and raising the start-up funds could take as long as a year-and-a-half. However, local leaders are confident about beating that 18-month timeline.
“Yes, we will,” Dixon said. “This is Effingham.”
The number of homeless people in Effingham County has increased dramatically in recent months, according to Dixon. Whereas the United Way previously had occasional cases of people who were homeless because they were “a drug abuser or they had burned all their bridges with their family,” Dixon said the Effingham office now sees one homeless family per week.
Some of Effingham’s homeless live in hotels, Dixon said, while others stay at shelters in Savannah. Others sleep in their cars, or live in tents at a campground or even in a relative’s back yard.
“It’s certainly not an environment that’s conducive to raise children in,” Dixon said. “Family Promise is all about the children.”
Families have to meet certain criteria to be part of Family Promise. Potential participants must take drug tests and undergo background checks.
“They carefully screen the families to make sure they have the potential of being successful,” Dixon said.
Dickey learned about Family Promise through his wife Julie, who is the assistant director of the United Way’s Effingham office. He said he was drawn to an organization that offers actual solutions to families genuinely wanting to improve their situations.
“How can you say no to that?” he said. “Handouts are good — people need that handout sometimes — but really it doesn’t take them from a bad situation to a better one. This organization is all about giving them a permanent solution to homelessness.”
About Family Promise
To get involved with Family Promise of Effingham County or for more information, call Julie Dickey of the United Way of Effingham County at 826-5300 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about Family Promise, visit www.familypromise.org.