Rockdale County does have a shelter, not outlined in this article, for women and children fleeing domestic abuse. Opened in 1995, Project ReNeWal serves as the only domestic violence shelter for Rockdale, Newton and Walton Counties and depends on a combination of county funds, court funds and donations. For more information, go to www.projectrenewalgeorgia.com
(This is the third installment of a multi-part series focusing on the plight of families in transition and the resources available to help them)
Recently, Rockdale is seeing the results of years of discussion and planning around helping homeless families come to fruition - and just in time.
Although numbers can be hard to determine, a report by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs found about 21,000 people across the state were homeless on a single night in January 2009 - about 20 percent more than in 2008 - and that about half of those did not have shelter. About half the people surveyed were also experiencing some type of medical or physical disability.
The DCA report also estimated about 41 people in Rockdale County on a single night in January 2009 were homeless, while the Rockdale County School System reported more than 100 enrolled students classified as homeless as of fall 2009. Rockdale Emergency Relief's food pantry is operating at 300 percent capacity.
In the county, an exciting synergy between agencies, faith-based groups and secular groups, is taking place to take care of these families. Some of the programs coming together include Phoenix Pass, which will celebrate a dedication of its first phase of construction this Wednesday, April 14, the Family Promise Program, Habitat for Humanity in Rockdale, Rockdale Emergency Relief and recent developments and connections between the groups.
Strength in numbers
The conversation on how to help displaced families in Rockdale County began long before the economic downturn began pulling more and more into the ranks of the homeless.
Clair Cline, head of the Rockdale United Way, recalled those discussions, which began about eight years ago and reached across agency, government, and faith community lines. "Rockdale County is a proactive community," she said. "The leadership said we want to be part of the Regional Commission on Homelessness. We want to make sure we're proactive instead of reactive."
For one thing, the leadership came to acknowledge that there were homeless residents in Rockdale at all. Ron Simpson, who was on the Rockdale United Way board at that time and is currently Phoenix Pass board chair, recalled his disbelief. "Homeless? I said ‘We don't have anybody like that.' "
Then he heard the story of a resident, a young stay-at-home mother of three young children whose husband had left her in Dallas, Tx., and who, upon coming to Conyers on a friend's invitation, found the invitation rescinded, found herself with nowhere to stay.
"So here she is in town. I don't know how much money she has. She and the kids sleep in the car. She got a job as a waitress at Waffle House. She put the kids in daycare. And all four of them got back in the car every night," said Simpson. "It just blew my mind. And I could see how that could happen."
They also realized that women and children made up the highest number of that population, as RER observed in its day to day operations running a food pantry and a housing retention assistance program which helps families stay in their homes.
"That's when discussions started around ‘What can we do to address this in our community. ‘ And the parts of the puzzle started coming together," said Cline.
A fortunate confluence of events brought several key elements together. "We've referred to it as a ‘God thing' all along," said Simpson, with a smile.
"We're looking at building a safety net with all the support systems a family might need. We do not have one agency in Rockdale County that can address everything. We don't expect to." said Cline. "In numbers, we build strength."
The newest of these programs is a network of churches called Family Promise of NewRock.
This program, which would be an affiliate of a national program with more than 160 affiliates, would involve thirteen host churches that switch off hosting displaced families and would have a day center facility and the aid of social service agencies.
The four churches committed to participating are Epiphany Lutheran, Smyrna Presbyterian Church, Oasis of Hope Church of God, and St. Pius X Catholic Church. Nine more churches are currently needed before the program can get off the ground.
Participating churches provide shelter for one week per quarter to 14 guests. A network van would in the morning to shuttle the families to the day center, a base to search for employment and housing, shower, do laundry and from which the children depart for school. A director will assist in case management services. In the evening, the van transports them back to the host church where they have a family-style dinner. At the end of the week, a network truck would move the beds and luggage to the next church. Though moving every week isn't ideal, it keeps the family together.
"Looking at family promise, it will address more than Phoenix Pass can, because it's looking at a whole family," pointed out Claire Cline. "A family might be grandparents with children, an aunt, uncle."
The program also allows congregations to help and minister to displaced families in a very tangible way, said Nathan Hilkert, pastor of Epiphany Lutheran in Conyers, who had participated in another Family Promise network in Augusta.
Family Promise and Phoenix Pass recently entered into discussions of allowing families in the Family Promise program to use the yet-to-be-built community center at Phoenix Pass as their day center.
"It would be complimentary for both the Phoenix Pass Transitional Housing Program and for the Family Promise NewRock Day Center operations and really seems to present a unique and ideal opportunity for expansion of services by leveraging resources together," said Roessler.
For more information on Family Promise of NewRock, go to ww.familypromiseofnewrock.org or www.familypromise.org for information on the national program. You can also contact Tim Carey at 678-607-1589. Donations may be sent to P.O. Box P.O. Box 81551, Conyers, GA 30013.
Rockdale Emergency Relief had long provided one-time housing retention assistance - a sort of homelessness prevention program. But if families had already lost their homes or were about to be evicted onto the street, there were no options, other than motels, that RER could offer them. As RER began looking at possibly setting up a temporary housing facility, they quickly realized it was too much to run both that and the day-to-day operations of their current programs. So they began looking for a partner and found one in First Baptist Church of Conyers.
"It was a united effort that the Lord blessed and helped us take up the work they had done," said Howard Greer, former pastor and associate pastor with First Baptist who had helped spearhead the efforts. A new, separate entity was formed with members from both RER and First Baptist and outside community members.
Around the same time, Jeff Beech and a handful of community members were looking at unmet needs in the community and developing the idea of the Light House village - a faith-based campus of independent service agencies, and one of them ended up being Phoenix Pass.
The concept that evolved for Phoenix Pass became much more than just a shelter for families. The program will require a commitment from mothers to attend training and classes, and will also give them opportunities to refine job seeking skills, interview skills, budgeting classes and computer classes. Families can stay at Phoenix Pass for up to two years, or can stay as little time as they need to get back on their feet.
"When someone has experienced circumstances, whether it's a traumatic life event that causes them to experience homelessness, often times they need the opportunity to regroup. That regrouping includes some reeducation or the opportunity to learn how to do some things differently," explained RER Executive Director Ashley Roessler.
"We're talking about individuals that have the opportunity to be successful. But they can't realize that if they don't have the opportunity to stabilize."
Phoenix Pass, which broke ground on construction last year, will dedicate the first phase of its building construction - and eight-unit apartment building and an accompanying community rooms in the shape of a lighthouse. Other phases will include another eight-unit apartment building, to be constructed as funds are raised.
About $300,000 was raised as the project got going, from a combination of grants, church donations and individual donations, about $250,000 has been spent so far in the first phase. Many companies also came forward to donate materials and services within the last six months, including bedding and electric appliances.
"When we finish the apartments next week, we will have spent $36 per square foot... and the buildings will be debt free because of the generosity of our community and donations around the nation," said Phoenix Pass and RER board member Maury Wilson.
The operating costs are estimated to be about $114,000 per year for the first phase. Phoenix Pass is asking individuals, churches, civic organizations and businesses to consider supporting this project by either making a one-time donation toward operating expenses or by sponsoring an individual apartment unit.
In a new development, Phoenix Pass now has a written understanding with Habitat for Humanity of Rockdale. Upon graduation, Phoenix Pass residents may now be eligible to purchase a Habitat Home built in one of Habitat's 30 lots in Conyers.
Wilson and Simpson said they had worried what the residents would do once they graduated and were faced with the daunting rental market. But now, residents will have the chance to buy, at very reasonable rates, their own home and become stable, productive members of the community.
For more information on Phoenix Pass, call 770-760-1020.
Habitat for Humanity
Bonny Bryant, Rockdale's Habitat for Humanity new president, is excited by the potential with their Olde Town Village 30-lot development. Awaiting final plat approval, they hope to break ground on the first home in the coming month and the second home shortly after that. Though their first homeowner has already been selected, Habitat hopes to use Phoenix Pass to help screen and select homeowners in the future.
Requirements for Habitat homeowners are a fair credit history, employment, $1,000 down payment, 300 hours of sweat equity and they must have resided in Rockdale County at least one year.
They already have street signs, lights and curbs in place and various groups such as Heritage's ROTC and Haven Fellowship have put in many hours clearing the land.
Bryant would like to spread the word about Habitat's store which is located at 1117 West Ave., next to the Open Campus. They have a good selection of home items, some new, and they will also pick up donated item. The initial plan was for the store to generate the cost of half a home per year, and they doubled that last year. The Habitat store is open on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. Their number is (770)785-7576.