To bring it closer to home, 5,037 in Bradley County live in poverty. Of those children, 33 who attended Cleveland City Schools in 2011-12 were classified as homeless.
Family Promise of Bradley County Executive Director Brian Stewart told Tennessee Targeted Community Crime Reduction grant partners Tuesday the face of homelessness is changing.
The crime reduction grant is a three-pronged approach to prevention, enforcement and intervention to reduce crime in these specific targeted hot spots. The $800,000 grant is funded through the Tennessee Office of Criminal Justice. The three-year program focuses on reducing criminal activity, bad behaviors, alcohol and other drugs primarily in south and southeast Cleveland. Grant partners meet the second Tuesday of each month at the Bradley County Juvenile Center.
Stewart said the first image of the “homeless” in many minds is of an individual addicted to drugs living under a bridge or in the woods. Since the local chapter opened its doors in September 2011, the organization has served 10 families totaling 40 people. Of those 40 people, 25 were children and of those 25 children, 18 were under 5 years old.
“There is actually a new face of homelessness and what a lot of folks don’t realize is there is a whole new category we are facing, not only in Bradley County, but in the country as a whole,” he said. “Families with children make up 40 percent of the homeless population in our country.”
Family Promise is an interfaith network committed to helping families achieve lasting independence. Stewart is the only paid staff. He works with 400 volunteers who work either directly with him or through participating host and support churches. A host church feeds and houses a maximum of 14 people (two or three families) at night for a period of one week. After a week, the family rotates to the next church in line. Support churches provide money or other resources.
“We partner with churches in the community and they are the ones providing the housing and meals at night,” Stewart said. “They convert Sunday school classrooms into rooms with a bed, lamps and dresser so each family gets their own home.”
The family leaves the church by 7 a.m. each morning and is transported to the Family Promise Day Center at 1110 Norman Chapel Road, where Stewart helps the adults find work or refers them to other agencies where they can learn life skills. The Day Center is a place of refuge where family members can have breakfast and lunch. It is a permanent address recognized by government agencies.
“Our goal is to take these families that are homeless and get them into permanent housing in three months or less,” he explained. “We are a very short-term solution.”
Independence is found through employment for the parents and education for the children. Family integrity is strengthened and preserved when parents can provide a safe, warm place to eat, sleep and care for their children in a home.
“Families are the fastest-growing homeless population in our country. Even though we still have the individuals, this is kind of a trend,” he said. “As you can see, there is a new face of homelessness we need to address.”
There are many reasons for homelessness including jobs lost when the economy crashed, when the housing market crashed, “and we’re still dealing with the results of the tornadoes on April 27, 2011. There are still families misplaced because of that, or fires. It can be a number of reasons that put these families in the situation they are in.”
If families are not getting help from Family Promise or the Cleveland Emergency Shelter, he said they are sleeping in cars and hotels, or staying with friends and families.
“Hotels are not the best home environment and if they are working, every paycheck goes to the hotel,” he said. “What’s wrong with staying with friends and families? It doesn’t work. You’ve got a grandmother with a one-bedroom apartment. The family moves in. It’s cramped. Tensions build. It doesn’t work.”
Stewart said life snowballed on one particular family after the family car broke down and the parents could not get to work, bills piled up, “— financially it just snowballed on them to the point they had to leave their apartment.”
Relatives invited them into their home for six months. Six months was reduced to three weeks. Then, it was reduced to “today.”
“I got a call from the mom, from a storage unit just bawling her eyes out because she’s got a 2-year old and a 1-year old. They were standing in front of their storage unit because they had nowhere to go,” he said.
The family was accepted into the program in July after a thorough background check and drug tests. There were bills to pay off, so they were given an extension since they have shown nothing but gratitude and are working hard toward moving into a home within the next two or three weeks.
Stewart said Family Promise is not equipped to handle domestic violence cases or severe alcohol, drug or mental problems.
“We’re looking for the families that were OK at one time and just need about three days to get back upon their feet,” he said.
They just need time to breathe.
Tennessee Targeted Community Crime Reduction Grant evaluator David Watts briefly spoke of the recent site visit by the statewide program administrator.
Watts said there are seven cities participating in the grant, and “I get the impression we are at the top in performance.”
He urged the partners to boost their energy in the local program to maintain the local performance.
“As we move toward the end of the year, let’s get our reports together,” he continued. “Every partner needs to write down improvements in relationships with partners because this is the first time we will be able to compare from one year to the next.”