Family Promise celebrates 10 months of helping homeless

Sherry Arey, executive director of Family Promise of Shenandoah County, displays an array of paper houses inside Family Promise's Day Center in Woodstock. The paper houses were distributed to area church parishioners to put their pocket change in recently. The proceeds went to benefit Family Promise. Rich Cooley/Daily

It all began when she found out some disturbing things about her now ex-boyfriend last December and a heated argument ensued, he shoved her hard, she fell down and lost consciousness. When she came to, she called the police.

“They found me in my car,” the 28-year-old said and she immediately took her 5-year-old daughter out of school, packed everything in the used car she quickly bought and left, planning to go someplace where she couldn’t be found.

Before ending up with Family Promise of Shenandoah County, she spent two months in Radford. Then a message on her phone from the ex-boyfriend, who had been visitng her former home in Washington, D.C.,  and Facebooking her, showed he might know where she was.

Another hasty fleeing ended up briefly in Winchester, and then she relocated to Woodstock where she and her daughter were living in her car until she learned about Family Promise.

“I prayed a lot and the first day I went to live with Family Promise, I went to an interview and got a job working for a sanitation company,” said the woman, who asked not be be identified.  She is now living in her own apartment with a steady white collar job.

She ended up spending a month with her daughter in the program, an organization that now includes nearly three dozen of the county’s approximately 120 churches helping homeless families piece their lives back together while providing food, shelter and transportation.

Another family being helped by Family Promise is Tyler, 22, and his family of four. They asked that their last names be withheld.

“They are helping me to get a steady job,” said Tyler.

He and his family have been with Family Promise for six weeks, rotating among churches for sleeping at night and undergoing counseling and work searches by day at the Family Promise center at 781 Spring Parkway in Woodstock.

Sherry Arey, executive director of Family Promise said there is a real need to help the homeless in Shenandoah County.

“It’s challenging but the churches have been so giving and the network is really working,” she said.

This is Family Promise Week, with the organization celebrating its first 10 months of operation by asking churches to distribute small decorated cardboard boxes to parishioners to take home, have their children help fill with change and donate the proceeds to Family Promise.

So far Family Promise has helped 11 families, including 23 children and 14 adults, including one disabled veteran and his family, and two babies born while families were in the program, earning an appraisal of “very good” from a spokesperson for the national Family Promise organization.

Over 700 volunteers have helped, providing more than 1,600 nights of lodging and more than 3,270 meals.

But at times, the effort – despite its good intentions – has been challenging.

Some volunteers have dropped out, creating “a struggle in some cases,” said Arey. “Reality is a little different because volunteer expectations sometimes are hard to overcome when they meet the families. Everyone brings their own thoughts and ideas to a situation.”

That often means accepting that a lifestyle wrapped around poverty creates a different mentality for someone homeless than someone who comes from a middle-class background who has had a major financial setback due to divorce, tragedy or other crippling occurrence.

Becky Leland, Family Promise congregational coordinator, said that in her experience, the people who show up to volunteer haven’t been down on their luck before. “Some think our guests should be grateful and overjoyed with every little thing,” she said.

“It is not our place to judge them or worry about their past,” said Leland. “We all have made mistakes in our lives and we try to move on. I say it is an awesome opportunity to put our faith into action.”

She added that it is easy to write a check.

“It’s different being face to face with people who need help. These families have to go to a different church each week, while seeking a place to live. It’s a stressful situation for them and some of our volunteers don’t take that into account, I think,” Leland said.

Tyler, his partner Heather, and their two boys, ages 8 and 5, have only praise for their volunteers.

The younger one calls it the “friendly house,'” said Heather, but when they first met Arey they thought committing to Family Promise “would be terrible” before learning “the volunteers are nice and go the extra mile for you.”

“As long as you don’t take advantage of them,” added Tyler.

Tyler and Heather come from backgrounds where drug and alcohol abuse was prevalent.

“I have not had good people in my life, a lot of them were junkies,” said Heather, who along with Tyler is tested frequently while in Family Promise because any drug use would mean immediate expulsion from the program.

Tyler is studying to get his GED, pay traffic fines, and take a Commercial Driving License course from Lord Fairfax Community College because “They guarantee job placement,” he said.

Heather and Tyler lost everything when they were evicted, being allowed to only take some clothes and family pictures. They said they spent several months living in a tent in the woods before entering Family Promise.

And while some of their family criticized them for going to Family Promise, derisively calling it a “group home,” Tyler said, “it’s good not to have family and friends visit us. It would be more of a temptation to do something wrong.”

“We have hope now and feel secure because it’s like someone backing you up,” he said. “Our whole lifestyle is changing, we used to just sit around and watch TV all day. Now we go for walks a lot.”

The Rev. George Bowers spearheaded the effort to bring Family Promise to Shenandoah County and is pastor of Antioch Church of the Brethren in Woodstock.

“It’s absolutely a success,” he said. “There have been some learning curves we are working on. We are trying to develop leadership folks to serve in a volunteer capacity. It is a challenge for every nonprofit to raise funds to develop. There are needs for folks getting trained and providing leadership.”

Contact Tom Crosby at news@nvdaily.com.

Homelessness in America

• A family of four cannot be supported if the wage earner works full-time at the minimum wage of $7.50 per hour. The break-even point for just reaching the poverty level total of $24,300 for a family of four is $11.68 an hour for 40 hours a week.

• There is no county in the United States where the minimum wage is high enough to afford a fair market monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment.

• The three most cited reasons for homelessness are: lack of affordable housing, unemployment and poverty.

• Homeless families are often hidden from view – living in shelters, cars, campgrounds or doubled up in overcrowded apartments.

• Only one-fourth of those eligible for federal housing assistance receive help, due to a lack of federal funding.

• Just over 16 million children live in households where they have to skip meals or eat less for the family to make ends meet.

Source: Familypromise.org