Charities Program Empowers Families to Find Stability, Set Goals (Story & Photos by Theresa Laurence, Tennessee Register)
On a recent Saturday morning, weeks before Thanksgiving, Elizabeth Tormey is already perusing a well-worn cookbook, dog-earing recipes she plans to cook for the first holiday feast in her family's new apartment.
She is nearly giddy at the prospect of being able to celebrate the holidays in her own home with her family this year. "We've come a very long way," she says, reflecting on the journey that she, her husband Sandy and son Mickey have endured to get where they are today.
The Tormeys' modest two bedroom apartment is not shiny and new; it is filled with secondhand furniture and the décor is sparse, but it's the first real home they've had together as a family, and they are so grateful for it. They truly appreciate the simple things that many people take for granted, like separate bedrooms, windows that actually open, and access to outdoor greenspace.
Last spring, after living in homeless shelters and motels for years, the Tormeys linked up with Catholic Charities of Tennessee's Family Empowerment Program, which helped them find stable housing. They are one of the first families to successfully complete the program, and are now self-sufficient.
But the Tormeys have a bigger goal than settling into their two bedroom apartment in East Nashville's Marina Manor complex for the long term. As soon as they are able to meet the income and employment guidelines to apply for a Habitat for Humanity house, they plan to do so.
"The bigger goal for all of our families is to own a home," said Matt Preston, Catholic Charities' Family Empowerment program coordinator. The Tormeys, he said, "have been so committed to following through on all their goals ... if any family can do it, they can."
The Tormeys were identified for the Family Empowerment Program through Elizabeth's son, a 15-year-old freshman at LEAD Academy, who was participating in Metro Nashville Public School's HERO program. The HERO program works with Metro students who are homeless or living in unstable or transitional situations, keeping them in one school even if the family has to move, and offering help with school paperwork, transportation and attire.
Sandy Tormey cleans up at the end of his shift at the deli counter at H.G. Hills Urban Market in downtown Nashville. He and his family have battled homelessness for years, living in shelters and motels. Thanks to assistance from Catholic Charities' Family Empowerment Program, the Tormeys have moved into an apartment and plan to apply for a Habitat for Humanity house as soon as they meet income and employment guidelines.
When the Family Empowerment program launched last year, they quickly found a close ally in the HERO program, and many of their referrals come through that channel. When a HERO family is referred to Catholic Charities, a caseworker can begin to help them find more appropriate and permanent housing and can offer employment assistance to the parents.
"Some families have been living in hotels and all of their income is paying for that, so they can't save up any money for the deposits or the first month's rent," Preston said. Family Empowerment caseworkers can work with a landlord and offer guidance and financial support as a family gets settled. Since the Empowerment program started last fall, Catholic Charities has moved 53 families into stable housing.
Both the HERO and Empowerment programs "are amazing," Elizabeth said. "I've seen them making a difference and they need to continue."
Some families that Catholic Charities works with through the Empowerment program need help overcoming an isolated financial problem, but others, like the Tormeys, have been trapped in a cycle of poverty and homelessness for years.
"I've put Mickey to bed in the backseat of the car, on the ground. I've stayed with men who abused us just to be able to feed him and put a roof over our heads. I'm not proud of that," Elizabeth said.
Even though she was "scared to death" to leave the small town of Crossville and come to Nashville, Elizabeth felt she had nowhere else to go as she was escaping an abusive relationship and needed a safe place for herself and her son to stay. She arrived at the Nashville Rescue Mission in the summer of 2009, and stayed for a year. "That was a year of healing," she said.
In the summer of 2010, Elizabeth met Sandy, who was also staying at the mission after outrunning his own childhood abuse and trauma, as well a string of dead end jobs. "We're both survivors," Elizabeth said.
The two felt a close connection, and Elizabeth was especially taken by the way Sandy treated Mickey and her older son, who now lives on his own. "They didn't have a dad, and they have the best dad in the world now," Elizabeth says, getting choked up as she talks about their relationship.
"I'm strictly dad," Sandy says. "There's no step." Sandy wants to legally adopt Mickey as soon as the couple can save enough money to hire a lawyer to make it official.
The Tormeys recently celebrated their five-year wedding anniversary. "We're not just street married, we're really married," Sandy says proudly, quickly locating the hardback wedding photo album that a fellow congregant from First Baptist Church made for them. The Tormeys are faithful members of the church and credit that community, and God, with pulling them out of some of their darkest times. "The Lord works in mysterious ways," Elizabeth said.
Two years after the Tormeys were married, Elizabeth suffered a massive heart attack and her survival was uncertain. Sandy was worried sick about her, trying to spend time in the hospital, take care of Mickey, and get back to his regular spot as a Contributor newspaper vendor. Their pastor prayed over Elizabeth, and the congregation raised $2,000 to help the Tormeys get back on their feet. "I counted that money eight times," Sandy said. "I couldn't believe it. I knew we were gonna be OK."
Elizabeth began a slow recovery, and has since been outfitted with a pacemaker. Due to her heart condition and other chronic medical issues, she is unable to be very physically active, and is often confined to the family's apartment. She receives Social Security disability payments, and writes for and sells The Contributor when she is able, to supplement the family's income.
Sandy still sells The Contributor and works part time at the deli counter at the H.G. Hills Urban Market in downtown Nashville. He's on track to begin working at the market full time after the holidays and is feeling confident about the family's future. "Then we want to turn an application in for a Habitat house," he said.
No safety net
The Tormeys do realize that they are still at risk. "Even middle income people are just two or three paychecks away from losing their house," Elizabeth said.
"A lot of the families we work with are working several part-time jobs and they don't have really good benefits," Preston said. If a family member gets sick or their car breaks down, "we'll have to step in and help them. There's just no safety net for them."
Preston said his clients are feeling the downside of Nashville's housing and development boom. Some have had to move because their landlord sold their rental house to a developer and they can't find any comparable units at a rate they can afford. Others have seen rents rise all around them and are being pushed further from the city's core and don't have adequate access to public transportation, jobs and other services.
Preston says Nashville is facing a housing crisis for low income residents, but city leaders realize the urgency of the situation. "During the mayoral race, the candidates were made aware that housing has to be at the top of the list" of issues to tackle, Preston said. "I feel really confident that there's momentum to get things to change," he said, "But there's a lot of work to be done."
Catholic Charities is always in need of volunteers to help support Family Empowerment Program clients, assisting them with material support and friendship as they transition into stable housing. More information is available by calling or emailing Matt Preston at (615) 352-3087(615) 352-3087 or firstname.lastname@example.org.