Families are the fastest rising demographic of the homeless sector in the United States. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), families now account for approximately 41 percent of the nation’s homeless population.
Gwinnett is no exception. In 2010, the magistrate court processed 25,374 eviction cases, or dispossessory affidavits, which is a 10.8 percent increase from 2009 in the county.
“Families are the hidden homeless,” said Brent Bohanan, Executive Director of Family Promise of Gwinnett, Inc. “You’re not going to see them under a bridge or living in a tent behind some building. They’re going to be in a hotel, with relatives, or living in their car.”
The economic downturn has had the biggest impact on family homelessness in Gwinnett, according to Bohanan. “We’re seeing probably a 25 to 40 percent increase in referrals,” Bohanan said.
Family Promise of Gwinnett is a nonprofit organization that focuses on helping Gwinnett families who have lost their homes. The organization partners with Gwinnett churches by housing families during a 90-day support and training program.
In Snellville, six churches have opened their doors to house homeless families, in partnership with Family Promise.
Cannon United Methodist Church (UMC) has been a partner of Family Promise of Gwinnett since it was established in 2005. Associate pastor Amy Morgan; Dawson Nixon, minister of administration; and member Susan Bruno form part of the team that manages Cannon UMC’s partnership.
“I remember about three years ago,” said Bruno, “a notice went out about missions. ‘Pick your mission.’ That stuck with me, to do something for other people through your church.”
Churches like Cannon UMC house families for one week at a time, three times per year, and the ministry relies on volunteers to set up beds, prepare meals, and stay at the church throughout the week.
Host churches must have adequate facilities to accommodate four families, including a kitchen, private rooms and separate bathrooms.
To be considered for the program, a family must be a resident of Gwinnett County, be homeless and have a child under the age of 18. Single-parent families comprise 94 percent of those served by Family Promise of Gwinnett, and most are single mothers with small children.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD),
more than 60 percent of the sheltered homeless population is under the age of 18. The focus on children is what caused Cannon UMC and other churches to get on board.
“The emphasis on children is right with the heart and mission here, which is children and youth,” Nixon said.
“Children shouldn’t be homeless,” Bohanan added. “They are innocent victims,
and one is one too many for me. Our goal is to end homelessness, one family at a
Family Promise has seen a lot of success in the past year, as 85 percent of guest families left the program having regained housing. However, public awareness of the homeless population in Snellville and Gwinnett remains low, Bohanan said, and there is no emergency homeless shelter in the county.
“People think of the bum under the bridge warming his hands by the fire," he added. "Most don’t even realize there are homeless in Gwinnett, and most are families with children.”
Morgan said she was "shocked when I heard about the volume of families living in their cars. Homeless ministry is not just about downtown [Atlanta]
Cannon UMC next turn for housing families comes in November, and Bruno
hopes more families can volunteer.
“We welcome people who are not members of our church to volunteer," she said. "It
would be wonderful to incorporate more families.
“We’re hoping people will realize more and more that it’s for the children of
these families, to hopefully make sure their family is able to support them and have
a home for them.”
Family Promise partner churches in Snellville: