Homelessness affects Florence families just as it does the rest of the nation. The Homeless Point in Count taken in January discovered 26 homeless families and a total of 293 homeless individuals in Florence.
While there are organizations here set up to deal with homeless individuals (House of Hope of the Pee Dee, Salvation Army, Pee Dee Transitional Shelter and Resurrection Restoration Center for the Homeless), most are not equipped to deal with homeless families.
Peter Rivera and a group of caring individuals want to change that. They have been meeting to talk about a solution to help homeless families get back on their feet and into permanent living quarters. They found a way to do this by joining the Family Promise Network, a national non-profit organization, and establishing an affiliate, Family Promise of Florence.
Family Promise of Florence has received its non-profit status and is currently seeking Christian churches to form a network to minister to homeless families. They will provide temporary housing, food, emotional and spiritual support, as well as professional guidance to assist families in gaining employment and permanent housing.
The national organization has been helping homeless families for 20 years Currently there are 163 Family Promise networks in the United States, including six in South Carolina - Anderson, Beaufort County, Greenville, Lancaster, Spartanburg and York County.
Rivera, associate pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church, is serving as president of the Family Promise of Florence board of directors. The board is seeking 13 host churches and 13 supportive churches to participate in this effort. At this time four churches are considering involvement.
A host church will provide temporary housing for one week, four times a year, for two to three homeless families. The families will sleep at the church for a week, rotating to the other churches until they can save enough money to find permanent housing and pay for necessary deposits. Church members would provide evening meals, breakfasts, sack lunches and interact with the families.
Rivera said at least two church members would be needed to stay at the church with the homeless families. This could be done in rotating shifts and could include members from the supportive churches. While it is labor intensive for a week, it is only four times a year, he noted.
Plans also call for a family day center - a house located along city bus lines - where the participating Family Promise families could come during the day. This day center would include an office for a network director, a resource area to assist adults in finding jobs and social services, a play room, as well as a laundry area and showers to serve the families. Children in school would catch the bus at the day center.
"During our crisis, it was peaceful to come to a church and feel protected," commented a young parent served by a Family Promise affiliate. "Although our home moved weekly, we felt loved and that we would not be abandoned until I was able to secure a permanent job and affordable housing."
According to network statistics, the average stay for homeless families is 65 days, Rivera said.
To participate in the program, a family must be cleared by the network director and by social services. The program is not designed to serve people dealing with drug abuse or domestic violence. There are other services for these problems, Rivera said.
"We want families looking for help and willing to help themselves," Rivera said.
Homelessness of families is a growing problem, especially due to the current high unemployment rate and economic environment. Nationally, one in five families have lost their home due to foreclosures. One in 20 have lost their rental units because owners have foreclosed. More than 65 percent of homeless families are single parent families.
Last year, Florence School District 1 identified 105 homeless students, Rivera noted, adding that number could possibly be much more. These children may be bouncing around from grandparents, friends, motels and even living out of cars. These type living situations do not foster the stability needed for children to excell in school, he said.
Family Promise is designed to put kids in a safe environment and give parents the assistance they need to provide a stable environment and promote healthy emotions, good nutrition and education, Rivera said.
Last year the average Family Promise network helped 73 people. Almost 80 percent of the families served found permanent or transistional housing.
Anyone interested in learning more about Family Promise is invited to a community meeting on Thursday, May 19, at 7 p.m. at the Church of Sandhurst. Speakers will include representatives of the national Family Promise Network. For more information, you may call Rivera at Immanuel Baptist at 662-9431.