Empowering Homeless Families to Achieve Stability (Ned Andrew Solomon, Tennessee Register)

Posted 05/22/2015

There's a bulletin board in Matt Preston's office at Catholic Charities that keeps track of the number of families who've been successfully transitioned from homelessness to housing. The number is up to 30 since July, when the United Way Family Empowerment Program grant began.

Last April, Preston, the grant's program coordinator, was finishing up an internship at Catholic Charities under Executive Director Bill Sinclair. "I was just talking to him about my interests and my passions for the homeless community," said Preston.

Fatefully, Sinclair got a call from United Way. The granting agency was working with a new funder in Ohio called The Siemer Institute for Family Stability, to tackle the underlying causes of homelessness.

"So, United Way reached out to Catholic Charities, because we have such a stake in this community, and we've been a social service agency for a long time," said Preston. "They asked if we'd be interested in applying for this grant."

They were, and Sinclair wanted Preston to write it. He worked diligently on it for weeks, approaching other agencies in the area about collaborating on the project. It was ultimately decided that the Nashville model would be a partnership between Catholic Charities and Safe Haven Family Shelter. Safe Haven would provide the shelter piece, and Catholic Charities would utilize its three case managers stationed in Family Resource Centers in North, East and South Nashville.

"What we found is that many families that are dealing with this are not necessarily on the street; they're not visibly homeless," explained Preston. "They've been doubled up with family or friends because they've been kicked out of an apartment or they've lost their house."

Many of these families are staying in motels, sometimes paying more than $2,000 a month. Putting all their income into next month's motel bill, the families can't save for a down payment or security deposit, moving costs or utility payments. Too frequently they've also accumulated debts from previous evictions.

One family had lived in a motel for two years. They are, fortunately, one of the 30 families that recently moved into their own place. The Empowerment program helped with moving costs, an eviction from Indiana and some debt from Metro Water and Nashville Electric Services.

"So now they have an apartment they can afford, and everything is more stable," Preston said. "Once they were over that initial financial hump, they were fine."

The program's goal is to give a family an opportunity to catch up so they can be self-sufficient again. "We talk to them about how we're not an emergency assistance agency, that we're here to start building their financial package, building their life back," said Preston. "That takes time. This is long-term stability we're working on."

The partnership with Safe Haven Family Shelter has been a strong and productive one. The two agencies meet monthly as a team, share some clients, and share information in a database, which allows for open communication and more efficient services. In a common scenario, Safe Haven provides shelter and case management while a family is waiting for their own home. After a family leaves the shelter, Catholic Charities can provide services for up to two years.

However, if a family has a credit issue, neither agency can co-sign on a loan or a lease. Instead, Preston and staff spend time establishing relationships with landlords and property managers. They purposely don't play the homeless pity card; they talk about the agency, the new program, and the need to help those who have been marginalized.

There are currently 86 families in the Empowerment program. Within that group, there's no "one size fits all" package. One family may just need that "over the hump" assistance. Another may need financial support for six months or a year. And then some clients may have steady income and zero debt but no place to go due to limited affordable housing.

The majority of referrals are from Metro Public School's HERO program, which specifically works with families that come through the public schools and mark "homeless" on their enrollment forms. Since August, 2,800 students from about 800 families have registered as homeless. And that's just those families connected to the school system.

"One of the big goals of Siemer is to reduce the mobility rates of children in school," said Preston. "If a child can stay in the same school all year, their potential is going to be reached a lot quicker than if they're moving around constantly. But in order to do that, you have to make sure their housing stability is there too."

This initiative is making headway and changing lives, but it can't possibly serve all the families in need. To help fill in the gap, Preston oversees a second program called Support Circles, a volunteer project that finds members of the community willing to give encouragement and mentorship to families or individuals experiencing homelessness. There are eight existing Support Circles at several parishes, including Holy Name Catholic Church in East Nashville and St. Matthew Catholic Church in Franklin.

A Support Circle doesn't need to be based in a faith community. It just has to be a small group of people who can come together to surround a person who's at risk for homelessness, or is already experiencing it.

"They walk alongside them for a year," said Preston. "During that year we can mentor that group to make sure they're building a healthy relationship, something that's mutual and based on friendship. Coming in with all the resources and ‘fixing' someone is not the goal. The goal is to just be with them, and be present, and provide a social network that these people have lost.

"In order to solve homelessness, you have to rebuild that community around them," continued Preston. "It's not easy to do, but it takes people of all kinds. It takes crossing those economic and social lines, and realizing that we have a lot more in common than we think."

For more information about Support Circles, e-mail Preston at Donations are alsoaccepted for both programs, along with welcome baskets, meals or other ways of showing appreciation for families in the Family Empowerment Program that have recently moved into their new residences.

For families in need of services, a referral can be obtained through Davidson County's HERO program. Contact Program Supervisor Catherine Knowles at (615) 259-8729, or Program Assistant Melanie McElhiney at (615) 259-3282, ext. 8103.

SOURCE: (Page 9)

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