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Dear Editor,

On any typical day, the United Way Effingham Service Center staff is resourceful in locating necessary means to support most of the basic needs for families in crisis. This community is fortunate to have several dedicated church-based food pantry programs which are managed by some the best volunteers Effingham has to offer.

A few of these pantries offer the extended service of clothing assistance. However, while the basic needs of food and clothing are readily accessible, we continually struggle with locating affordable housing or shelter for families in need. The last quarter of 2012 we responded to an average three calls or walk-ins a month from families in need of emergency housing. During the first two quarters of 2013 we have seen an increase in homeless families at the rate of one per week.  The majority of these families were single parents trying to stretch one pay check (and sometimes two) to cover their family’s needs.

It is apparent that the sliding economy and the previous year’s skyrocketing home foreclosures combined with job layoffs, decreased employee hours and a shortage of affordable housing are the major reasons we are seeing such an alarming number of homeless families in Effingham.

When presenting this information to the general public we often hear, “I’ve never seen any homeless families in Effingham.”  Allow me to enlighten you. Have you cruised through a well-lit parking lot between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.? Have you noticed families living in small campers/tents at the local campgrounds? Check out the local motels — there you will find many of the rooms occupied by homeless families. Have you had a conversation with our school counselors and social workers?

Our school social worker, liaison for homeless children, reported earlier this year that the Effingham Board of Education had identified and served 145 homeless children from 73 families. This is a disturbing number but we can’t overlook the fact that this count includes only school age children — national statistics indicate that nearly 50 percent of homeless children are under school-age, which is an additional 145 homeless children in Effingham.

Why should we be concerned with homeless children in Effingham? Because it affects us all!

Homelessness has particularly adverse effects on children and youth including hunger, poor physical and mental health, and missed educational opportunities.

Ninety-seven percent of these children move multiple times on an annual basis, which leads to disruptions in schooling and negatively impacts academic achievement. Interruption of schooling causes homeless children to be twice as likely to have a learning disability, repeat a grade, or to be suspended from school.

Homeless children experience hunger at a rate of 50 percent more than their non-homeless peers. Hunger has negative effects on the physical, social, emotional and cognitive development of children.

Twenty-five percent of homeless children have witnessed violence and 22 percent have been separated from their families. Exposure to violence can cause a number of psychosocial difficulties for children both emotionally (depression, anxiety, withdrawal) and behaviorally (aggression, acting out). Half of school-age homeless children experience problems with depression and anxiety and one in five homeless preschoolers have emotional problems that require professional care.

Homelessness is linked to poor physical health for children including low birth weight, malnutrition, ear infections, exposure to environmental toxins, and chronic illness (e.g. asthma). Homeless children also are less likely to have adequate access to medical and dental care.

Youth are often more likely to struggle with mental health (depression, anxiety, and PTSD) and substance abuse problems.

Hopefully, you are asking, “What can I do to help children and families in Effingham who are struggling with poverty, hunger, and homelessness?” I am overjoyed to share with you Family Promise of Effingham, Inc., the new initiative in our community, driven by dedicated volunteers representing a huge segment of our local churches, who are working together to establish a resource for homeless children and families.

As a nationally-based program, Family Promise’s mission is to help homeless and low-income families achieve sustainable independence. They recognize that poverty is a multifaceted problem that requires a comprehensive response, including an integrated educational outreach, smart programming, effective policies, and the hands-on work of thousands of volunteers.

Family Promise, Inc., accomplishes their work through independent affiliates in 41 states (and counting). They currently have 181 affiliates in operation, and dozens more are in development, including ours in Effingham.

At the heart of each Affiliate is an Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN). The IHN works with existing local resources to help homeless families as they work to get back on their feet. These resources include available congregational spaces, donated goods, and — most importantly — volunteers. Today, nationally, Family Promise mobilizes more than 160,000 volunteers from coast to coast in their commitment to building stronger communities, strengthening lives.

Family Promise affiliates are nonsectarian. They welcome all clients. Their volunteers come from diverse backgrounds and represent nearly every faith in the U.S. Since their founding more than 20 years ago, they have served tens of thousands of homeless families who found temporary homes at their affiliates. Most of the clients are children with the average age being 9 years old.  In 2012, nationally Family Promise’s proven approach celebrated a success rate of 71 percent in moving families with children from homelessness to sustainable independence.

Won’t you join the effort? If you, your family or your church have further questions or would like more information on how to improve the condition of homeless children and their families in Effingham by being actively involved in this highly-accomplished program, please go to our Web site or our Facebook page – Family Promise of Effingham, Inc. You can also sign up to volunteer by emailing us at, or calling (912) 268-0FPE (0373) to find out how you can get involved.

Bonnie Dixon
United Way of the Coastal Empire