Photo courtesy of St. Thomas More Catholic Church, http://www.stmaustin.org/catholic-single-parents.
When someone mentions the word homeless, what picture first comes into your mind? A person huddled under a bridge in a sleeping bag or lying on a park bench next to a grocery cart with a few belongings; or perhaps a person standing on the street corner holding cardboard sign that reads, “Hungry. Anything Helps.” While these are tragic pictures of the reality of homelessness in our country, many people are homeless in less overt ways all around us.
In its simplest form, a person is homeless if they lack stable housing.[i] This situation may include a wide range of circumstances, from living on the street, to staying in a shelter or transitional house, to doubling-up with family members or friends for a short period of time. The stark reality is that those who are homeless face instability, and this takes a toll on people, especially children.
Georgia has a number of organizations that work to address the issue of homelessness. One notable organization, Family Promise of Gwinnett County, Inc. (Family Promise), focuses specifically on addressing the needs of families that have become homeless due to a temporary change in circumstances like losing a job. This interfaith non-profit is part of a national organization founded in 1986 which has 182 local organizations nation-wide. Family Promise’s mission is “to mobilize communities of congregations that partner with social service agencies to end homelessness – one family at a time.”[ii]
Family Promise stands as one of the few shelter programs in Gwinnett that specifically target homeless families. Their emphasis on families as opposed to individuals is rooted in the reality that families with children are among the fastest growing segments of the homeless population.[iii] Estimates in Gwinnett County show that 60 percent of the homeless family population consists of children, and 50 percent of these children are under the age of six. This reality is reflected in the Gwinnett County School System which accommodated over 3,000 homeless students during the 2011-2012.[iv]
Georgia as a whole ranked 41st in the nation in matters related to child homelessness in 2010, having an estimated 45,566 homeless children.[v]
Most of the families served by Family Promise are single-parent households, and 60 percent of their guests have experienced situational homelessness before.[vi] Families must go through a thorough interview process to qualify for the 30 to 90 days shelter program, which involves a review of their work history, evictions, criminal background, and drug history. In addition, families must have a child under 18 years of age to qualify for the program, and at least one person in the household is required to have at least a part-time job during their stay.
Families stay in the program 51-55 days on average. They must move to a new host church every week as a way preventing them from becoming too comfortable and as a way of balancing the demand placed upon the host churches. Participants are required to actively search for a job and to work regularly once they obtain one. Typical jobs that participants obtain include fast food service, retail, housekeeping, landscaping, and customer service.
In 2013, Family Promise served a total of 38 families of whom 74 percent graduated from the program. Of these graduates, 55 percent had a job and 64 percent had a place to live upon leaving the program.[vii]
Chuck Ferraro, executive director of Family Promise, estimates that there are more than 400 churches of various sizes in Gwinnett. His job is to recruit these churches to be partners by agreeing to house up to four homeless families in their church building for one week out of the year. Currently, families rotate weekly among 30 Host Congregations in the network. Each host congregation is responsible for providing lodging, three meals a day, and general hospitality three to four times a year. Lodging consists of church classrooms and other open rooms in the building that can be converted into living spaces for these families during the week. Churches are able to do this in areas of their buildings that require limited use during the week.
Ferraro said that if he can get thirteen churches committed to housing a homeless family once a quarter, the needs of families that they serve could be covered for an entire year. However, getting churches to make this sort of commitment is a major challenge, he expressed. They are often pulled in a variety of directions when it comes to ministry focuses, and housing homeless families is not always a popular draw (despite the fact that caring for the poor is a central mission of the Church, he argues).
Nonetheless, Ferraro explained that there are ample opportunities for congregations to be involved in the work besides hosting families, and these include providing regular volunteers and funding. Volunteers are essential to the success of Family Promise as they provide a wide range of services that keep the program in operation, from cooking and serving meals, to playing with children and helping them with homework, to interacting with guests and providing overnight security.
As a way of addressing the needs of families beyond the immediate shelter program, Family Promise has created an aftercare program that supports families for up to a year after their time in the shelter program. Families who enter the aftercare program will receive case management, parenting and nutrition classes, and financial support that will help them on their pathway toward self-sustainability. The organization is looking to target twelve families per year for this program.
Addressing the needs of homeless families can be an overwhelming task. However, when members of a community join together to serve in the unique capacity that each is able, a tangible and significant difference can be made in the life and trajectory of a family.
[i] National Health Care for the Homeless Council, “What is the official definition of homelessness?” accessed June 23, 2014, http://www.nhchc.org/faq/official-definition-homelessness/.
[ii] Family Promise of Gwinnett County, Inc., “A Recovery & Sustainability Program for Homeless Families,” Brochure, received June 6, 2014.
[iii] National Coalition for the Homeless, “Who is Homeless?” Fact Sheet, July 2009, accessed June 23, 2014, http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/who.html.
[iv] Family Promise of Gwinnett County, Inc., “A Recovery & Sustainability Program.”
[v] Ellen L. Bassuk et al., America’s Youngest Outcasts 2010: State Report Card on Child Homelessness, The National Center on Family Homelessness, December 2011, 35, http://www.homelesschildrenamerica.org/media/NCFH_AmericaOutcast2010_web.pdf.
[vi] Interview with Chuck Ferraro, Executive Director at Family Promise of Gwinnett County, June 6, 2014.
[vii] Family Promise of Gwinnett County, Inc., “A Recovery & Sustainability Program.”
Below is a guest blog by Jesse Wiese, Policy Analyst at Justice Fellowship, the legislative advocacy arm of Prison Fellowship Ministries.
Image Credit: Molly Rowan Leach/Feverpitched. All Rights Reserved. Found at Transformation.
For decades America has taken a “tough-on-crime” approach to criminal justice. This philosophy has generated little in the way of positive results and has resulted in burgeoning state budgets, overcrowded prisons, and low success rates. States are beginning to understand that we cannot incarcerate ourselves out of the problem of crime and recidivism. Fortunately, lawmakers are beginning to shift from a “tough-on-crime” approach and focus more on the science of criminology, or evidence-based-practices. This shift, however, is motivated predominantly by shrinking state budgets and the need to reduce the rising cost of corrections.
These reforms, while positive, do not go far enough. If we want to realize lasting change within the criminal justice system, we must do more than trim state budgets, institute new programs, or provide staff training — though these actions offer a good starting point. What is needed is a paradigm shift. We as a society need an altering of the lens through which we view crime, the men and women who commit it, and the victims and communities it affects. For a criminal justice system to be truly effective, it must recognize the broken moral foundations which lead to crime and provide a philosophical basis that perpetuates and restores the notions of human dignity and value.
Restorative justice addresses inefficiencies of the status quo and offers solutions that can provide lasting and refreshing change. By placing the victim at the center of the case, restorative justice places government in its rightful role as a facilitator of justice rather than a direct party. More importantly, restorative justice prioritizes victim participation, promotes offender responsibility, and cultivates community engagement. Identifying the needs and responsibilities of these three parties — victims, offenders, and community — is the fuel to realizing restorative outcomes and can be summed up in the following three questions:
First, do the victims and survivors of the criminal act have the right and opportunity to be validated and restored? Under the current system, the proper status of victims and survivors is usurped by the government’s unbalanced role of both victim and prosecutor. Restorative justice promotes the need for victims to be consistently considered throughout the criminal justice process. Although criminal acts often result in damages that can never be fully restored, victims and survivors have legal rights that should be enforced. Victims and survivors of crime may also need help regaining a sense of safety and control over their lives and assistance with damages they suffer, material or otherwise.
Second, are offenders given a fair process, proportionate and definitive punishment, and the expectation and opportunity to make amends? Restorative justice requires that the criminal justice system do more than warehouse people convicted of crimes. By holding men and women accountable for the harm they have caused to their victims and communities, the restorative justice process requires these men and women to take the necessary steps toward making amends and rebuilding trust within their communities. With the goal that those convicted of a crime are treated with dignity and fairness, restorative justice can ensure that punishments delivered will be proportional to the harm caused by the offense. Through this approach offenders are offered an opportunity for a fresh start, even if incarceration is necessary.
Third, is community safety improved and do communities play a role in restoring victims and those who have completed criminal punishment? Because crime affects communities by eroding public safety and confidence, disrupting order, and undermining common values, communities need to play an integral role in the restoration process. Additionally, communities can actively work to support victims and survivors of crime and help to facilitate the reintegration of those who have completed their criminal punishment. Government should, in turn, promote safety through proven crime reduction practices and the promotion of community education and solutions.
As a society, we have begun to consider the consequences of a “tough-on-crime” approach to criminal justice. Fortunately, there seems to be wide ranging support across both the political and religious spectrums for moving toward a system of restorative justice. However, the much-needed restorative justice reforms will only take place if citizens like you and me speak up, join together, and advocate for change.
You can do so by joining the Justice Fellowship Network. You will be kept up-to-date about reforms that advance restorative justice principles in your state and given opportunities to advocate for those reforms.
This week, the Center for Education Reform released its Education Tax Credit Rankings and Scorecard, which evaluates the fourteen tax credit funded scholarship programs across the country.
Georgia’s program, which was created in 2008, received a “B”.
The Georgia program scores well in many of the categories like program design and eligibility requirements. However, we fall out of the top of the rankings because the total program is capped at $58 million annually–which might sound like a lot of money but actually only represents 0.14% of the overall state budget. The program is so popular, the $58 million cap was reached this year in just three weeks. Nearly all of the Student Scholarship Organizations who distribute the scholarships to students have waiting lists.
By contrast, the Florida program, which received an “A”, allocates $286 million in tax credits to fund scholarships that allow almost 60,000 students to attend a school that better meets their individual needs.
Arizona, the other state receiving an “A” grade, does not limit the total dollar value of individual donations and caps corporate donations at $36 million annually. There are more than 42,000 students on tax credit scholarships in Arizona.
Georgia’s program serves about 13,000 students who have moved from a traditional public school to a private school using scholarships funded by individuals and corporations who receive a tax credit for their donations. That represents a mere .007% of Georgia’s 1.7 million public school students.
Because every child is different, we need a variety of options at our disposal when it comes to education. Tax credit scholarships are just one of many ways we can ensure that all Georgia children have access to a quality school. And given our grade in the report card, perhaps we still have more to learn from other states that continue to give even more families the flexibility to meet the educational needs of their children.
To learn more about Georgia’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program and other school choice options in the state, see our 2014 School Choice Handbook.
While no English word truly captures the full meaning of the Greek word Arete, its simplest translation is excellence. It is the divine essence of the word, however, that Derek Monjure had in mind when he founded Arete Scholars Fund Inc. As a Student Scholarship Organization (SSO), Arete is dedicated to helping low-income families access quality education at private schools in Georgia. The Breakthrough Fellows and GCO team members recently had the opportunity to visit with Mr. Monjure and Arete’s Director of Communications Buck Alford to learn more about Georgia’s tax credit scholarship program and their role as SSO operators.
For those unfamiliar with Georgia’s tax credit scholarship, the program allows corporations to donate up to 75% of their state income liability to a state approved SSO. Additionally, families are able to contribute up to $2,500. In return, both corporate and individual contributors receive a tax credit for the same amount of their donation. SSOs then use the raised funds to grant scholarships of as much as $8,983 a school year. This money goes directly to families and is used towards placing their child in the partnering private school of their choice. On average, Arete awards scholarships of $4,ooo-$5,000 to the families they serve.
The tax credit scholarship program has been a great opportunity for the more than 15,000 students who have been fortunate enough to receive scholarships. However, many more opportunities exist to eliminate the barriers that bar even more of Georgia’s children from this same benefit. One such opportunity is to raise the overall tax credit program cap, or perhaps remove it all together. The 2014 contribution cap of $58 million was reached in just three weeks. In one regard, this signifies the popularity of the program and desire of Georgians to contribute to quality education. In a less positive regard, reaching the cap so quickly has already affected the SSOs, families, and students whose donors missed the cut off. For Arete, and many other SSOs,
Despite the challenges, the spirit and energy of Arete Scholars remains focused on providing the financial means necessary for students to pursue a level of academic excellence that they would otherwise be unable to access. The organization has even begun expanding its operations into other states, starting with Louisiana. Though Mr. Monjure is quick to say his work is simply transactional, it is clear from his passion that his mission is actually rooted in a higher calling.
Prison is not typically the place where men openly share their feelings with each other, for fear of coming across as soft. However, several GCO team members experienced something markedly different while sitting-in on a fatherhood class at Clayton County Transitional Center.[i]
Reflecting on this experience, Breakthrough Fellow Michael Schulte writes:
It was wonderful to see the men open up as they spoke about their children, sharing their names, ages, and where they live now. One man had been away from his two kids for 14 years, and I could see by looking at his face how much it pained him. Many of these men are hopeful for the chance to simply be around their children again.
The fatherhood class is run by It Takes a Village Today (ITAVT), a non-profit whose name is derived from an ancient African proverb emphasizing community responsibility in the upbringing of children. As such, its mission is to preserve children and ensure they have a good upbringing through instilling the values of fatherhood within the men who will be returning to their families from prison.
The class provides a number of important services to the men including offering instruction on what it means to be a good father, helping noncustodial parents identify existing child support orders, and providing assistance in legitimizing children.
Concerning legitimation, Breakthrough Fellow Aundrea Gregg writes:
I was quite astounded by the number of men with unknown numbers of kids – men in need of help discovering once and for all who belongs to them. For fathers hopeful to build stronger relationships with their children, uncertainty of paternity can have serious implications…Any man wishing to gain rights to custody, visitation, or even have their children take their last name must complete the legitimation process…It Takes a Village…provide[s] the legal support that is needed for participants of the program to take paternity tests, file voluntary parental acknowledgement forms, and complete the legitimation process.
In addition to providing practical help, the class offers a forum for the men to speak openly about their children, share their goals as fathers, and reflect upon their own upbringing. Katherine Greene, Program Specialist with GCO, was particularly impacted as the men reflected on what sort of fathers they had while growing up. She explains:
One of the facilitators…asked two thought provoking questions: ‘What was your father like and how do you compare to him?’ Most of their responses surprised me. Many of them described their fathers as being positive role models in their lives. In the words of one inmate, ‘My father was a loving man. He was protective and very strict. He was present in my life. I just made some bad decisions which landed me in here.’ His words, among others who shared that day, really resonated with me.
Each of the GCO team members in attendance left the class feeling privileged to have learned about the men’s lives and were moved by the experience. Patrick Kaiser, Senior Manager of Research and Development, summed up the visit in the following words:
I think everyone should have a similar experience to see that these men are not like criminals portrayed in the media. Rather, they are men who have faced daunting challenges in their lives, made mistakes in how they tackled these challenges, and are looking to make amends for their errors and become positive community members. Many of these men were failed by their communities as children and young adults. We must not fail them again.
[i] Offenders entering transitional centers in Georgia typically have 6-12 months remaining in their sentence.