UMCs, other churches help homeless families stay together as latest affiliate opens in Midlands
By Jessica Brodie
COLUMBIA—Never in a million years did Frederica Prince think she and her two sons would be homeless.
“I did everything everyone expected me to do—I raised a family, worked since I was 15 years old, everything I was taught as it relates to the American dream. Finding myself in this predicament was not something I ever expected,” Prince said.
A single mother, Prince and her sons found themselves homeless recently after they were forced to move out of her brother’s house and her car engine died, and she couldn’t get to work and afford a place of their own. They were living in a hotel, scraping by. Desperation loomed.
And then, an answered prayer: a free place for her and her sons to live for the next 90 days. Help with transportation. Coaching and assistance with a job hunt. Prayer and love. All courtesy of the newly opened Family Promise of the Midlands.
“It’s as if God opened up a window and poured out all his angels,” Prince told the Advocate, a wide grin transforming her face and tired eyes gleaming with hope. “They opened up their doors and allowed me and my boys to come in. They treat us as if we’re one of them. It’s truly a blessing.”
Family Promise of the Midlands is the latest affiliate of the Family Promise organization to open in South Carolina, joining seven other affiliates from the Upstate to the Lowcountry. United Methodist churches team up with other churches in their area to host homeless families for a three-month period, plus do what they can to help parents find jobs and get back on their feet for good. Families spend their nights at a church for one week, Sunday evening to Sunday morning, then rotate to another church the next week until their 90 days are up. During the days while children are in school, parents look for jobs or work and save up money, step by step to get their lives back on track. There are 15 ecumenical host churches in the Midlands, plus several support churches, and a church hosts a family once every 15 weeks—less than once a quarter.
So far in S.C., Anderson, Beaufort County, Greenville, Lancaster, the Midlands, Pickens County, Spartanburg and York County have Family Promise affiliates. The Aiken area is served by Family Promise of Augusta, Georgia. The Midlands branch of Family Promise opened Dec. 8 after more than two years of hard work. The Prince family is the second to be helped since it began. Currently under development is the next affiliate, in Florence.
“The vast majority of people have a picture in their mind of who is homeless. They don’t realize the person sitting next to them in the cubicle at work is homeless,” said Kathleen McLean-Titus, executive director of Family Promise of the Midlands. “More than 1,100 kids in the Richland One School District are homeless, and over 2,000 children across the Midlands. The vast majority of people live in their own little bubbles and don’t realize the person next to them is living in their car.”
Goal: Find housing and a job
Family Promise of the Midlands can accommodate three families at one time, and up to 14 people. The family must include a parent or parental figure (such as a grandparent with custody) and at least one child.
The family must be situationally homeless—because of a specific event, such as job loss or injury—not chronically homeless, plus must have no active drug or alcohol addiction issues, have a clean criminal record and not be fleeing a domestic violence situation. Parents must actively seek work and save money for housing.
“The goal is to find housing and maybe a job,” McLean-Titus said.
Formerly with the S.C. Department of Social Services, McLean-Titus had been a foster care manager and independent living coordinator, and she knows how quickly a situational homeless situation can escalate into a long-term problem. She tries to get people back on their feet as quickly as possible, even working with utility companies and landlords to see if they can waive security deposits and other barriers to housing.
If a church or agency has a potential family candidate, that family contacts McLean-Titus, who does a detailed phone screening. If it seems like a family they can help, she then does a face-to-face meeting with the family, asking hard questions and laying out exactly what will be required for the next three months.
“I’m pretty direct about it. I believe in disclosing everything up front,” she said.
‘An atmosphere to help’
Sunday is the start of the program. The family begins at the Day Center, located on the second floor of Wesley Memorial UMC, Columbia. If they don’t have transportation, they are taken to that week’s host church, arriving between 5 and 6 p.m. They have dinner and do some activities, then lights out at 10 p.m. They wake at 6 a.m., dress and have breakfast. If they have a car, they can drive to school and work, but if not, they are transported to the Day Center, where schools pick up the children for the day. Adults are expected to either go to their job or stay at the Day Center and apply for jobs all day. Very young children are enrolled in a Head Start daycare program.
Some churches have laundry and showers, but many don’t, so in the afternoons after school, the families typically use laundry and shower facilities at the Day Center, then head back to the church between 5 and 6 p.m. to repeat the process (dinner, activities, lights out at 10, wake at 6 a.m. repeat).
They stay at the church all week, and then on Saturdays have a free day, where church members supply entertainment. Bethel UMC was the host church the week the Advocate visited, and they were planning to take their guests to the military museum on Saturday. On Sundays, families often worship with the host church, then they head on to their next week’s host church.
Most churches use Sunday school rooms, with one room per family, though some larger families are often split up—the boy children sleeping in a room with the father, and the girl children with the mother.
The week the Advocate visited, Prince and her sons were staying at Bethel UMC, Columbia, where Bonnie Speas is the co-host coordinator. Speas said it takes about 50 volunteers to make it all come together during their host week: some to provide breakfast, dinner and a brownbag lunch; some to provide transportation; some to provide activities; some to sleep over at the church with the families. Speas has six teams under her and said she and her volunteers feel the hard work is all worthwhile.
“Homelessness is an epidemic, and it pulls families apart,” Speas said. “I want to create an atmosphere that will help them and make them be independent. God has called us to help people and I feel I’ve been made a disciple to have a voice to protect the children and these families.”
75 percent success rate
Tony McDade, executive director for the Midlands’ sister affiliate, GAIHN (Greenville Area Interfaith Housing Network) in Greenville, said he is thrilled to see Family Promise expand into the Columbia area, and he applauds the work of McLean-Titus and the vast network of ecumenical churches who made Family Promise a success.
McDade, a Baptist minister, said United Methodist churches are the backbone of the Family Promise network, and it benefits church families as much as it benefits homeless families.
“This is just another way for Methodist congregations to be Wesleyan in the very best sense,” McDade said, noting the need is great—and growing.
“Families are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population in our country and county, and one in four homeless persons nationwide is a child under the age of 18,” McDade said, adding that each year more than 4,000 people experience homelessness in the Upstate and approximately 1,000 homeless people call Greenville home. GAIHN, which has been open since 2001, not only provides the three-month emergency shelter and meals at host congregations, but also offers short-term (three to six months) or longer-term (12 months or longer) transitional housing, which is something the Midlands affiliate might explore in the future.
Family Promise does make a difference, not just in S.C. but nationwide, McDade said.
“Three of four families who come into Family Promise leave with a job and a place to stay. That’s a 75 percent success rate, and that’s not bad. That’s a solid number,” McDade said.
‘On the upswing’
As for Prince and her sons, they intend to be among that 75 percent success rate. As of press time, Prince was in her third week at Family Promise and making strong headway into finding a good job. A guardian ad litem, she hopes to find work helping children.
“Through Him all things are possible. In order to get past homelessness, you have to empty out of self, which is to get rid of pride. It’s a journey, it’s a process, but it has to be done. If God brings you to it, He’ll bring you through it,” Prince said. “There are always little hiccups in life, and you decide how long it’s going to take: a 40-year wilderness period or a 40-day wilderness period.”
Now, she said, “I’m on the upswing and finding solutions. I don’t have a place of my own, but provisions have been made.”
And McLean-Titus and members of more than 15 churches in the Midlands are there by her family’s side, cheering them on, offering assistance and support, all in the name of love.
How to help
Family Promise is completely nonprofit, and in the Midlands, they are not eligible for government funding for at least another year. They are applying for grants, plus receive private individual and church donations. Currently, they seek funding for a trailer and a part-time caseworker.
To learn more about the organization and how to help, visit www.familypromisemidlands.org.
If you know a family experiencing situational homelessness, call McLean-Titus at 803-832-4765.