When a local organization which helps homeless families found itself in a tough spot because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the community helped in a big way in just a couple days.
“The basis of our model is to work with local churches and congregations,” said Eva VanHook, executive director of Family Promise of Bradley County. “Because of this, we were very quickly impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.”
Family Promise of Bradley County is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization which provides shelter and other forms of help to homeless families with children.
It normally partners with churches to provide shelter to the families it serves. Churches take turns hosting them for a week at a time, with Sunday school rooms being turned into makeshift bedrooms. Church volunteers also provide nightly meals and conversation.
However, keeping this going became difficult when churches were faced with coronavirus-related closures in March. With no dedicated sleeping quarters of its own, the local Family Promise has needed to pay for families’ hotel stays.
At the end of March, VanHook sent letters and emails to the organization’s donors, letting them know of the financial challenge. Donors responded by making $20,500 worth of donations in just one and a half days.
“It was such an immediate response. It was really overwhelming,” VanHook said. “We were — and still are — so, so grateful for everyone who donated.”
There are currently two families in hotels, with one family actually having “graduated” by finding their own housing during this time.
With families now living in local hotels for close to two months, the organization has been able to pay for hotel stays and other recent needs without dipping into other areas of its budget.
Still, there are some challenges. While Family Promise staff are continuing to keep in touch with the families and help make sure they have meals, they are not getting to interact with churches like they normally do.
“The secret that makes Family Promise work so well is the families interacting with volunteers at the churches. They get encouragement and make connections which help them as they’re working toward [overcoming homelessness],” VanHook said. “It has been so tough to remove that aspect.”
Because of this, Family Promise is looking for more volunteers. The organization is about to start a “pen pal” program, which would allow volunteers to send encouraging letters and provide other forms of moral support from a distance.
These efforts are in the works as more families stand in need of the organization’s help. It currently has a waiting list of new homeless families waiting to be enrolled.
Family Promise has been pouring its efforts into its Project Home initiative, which seeks to prevent homelessness by helping families with rent or mortgage payment assistance.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic caused layoffs and furloughs, more local families have found themselves struggling to make ends meet.
“We’ve seen a massive increase in requests for rent and mortgage assistance,” VanHook said.
Before COVID-19, the organization would receive about four calls a month from people asking for this assistance. Now, it fields an average of 15 such calls in just a week.
The stories of people needing help are varied, but many do involve layoffs and furloughs. VanHook told the story of one single mother, a graduate of the residential Family Promise program, who is now struggling again because of lost work.
“The goal of Project Home really is to prevent homelessness,” VanHook said. “It is a departure from what we’ve done in the past, but I like to tell people it is much more cost-effective to help people before they are homeless than after.”
Family Promise staff are still working to make both its residential program and Project Home available for families in need. Though some are working from home in light of social distancing guidelines, their minds are never distant from the families they serve.
“The bottom line is we’re still workin. We’re still helping families,” said VanHook.
Anyone interested in helping families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness can donate money or volunteer. Gift cards to local restaurants and Walmart are also appreciated, to help the families in hotels get the food and supplies they need.