Families facing homelessness in the region might soon have a place to stay while they get back on their feet.

A multi-agency effort involving local churches, the United Way of Bristol and a group new to the area, Family Promise of Bristol, is in the works to help alleviate the stress of homeless families – a group that agency workers say is on the rise in the region.

“Between the two Bristols, there are about 70 children who are identified as homeless children,” said Lynn Pannell, a member of the Family Promise of Bristol board. “That represents quite a few families.”

Currently, there is not a transient housing set-up in the city. People who find themselves without a place to stay overnight can stay at the Salvation Army for as long as three nights, said Dorothy Hurt, a caseworker there. At Haven of Rest, people can stay for about four days, unless they’re in one of the shelter’s programs, according to the Haven of Rest’s website. And, in both situations, people are asked to leave during the day, although they can eat all three meals there.

At the Salvation Army, there are dormitories for men, women and families, Hurt said. But most of the people in the family dorm are women with children, which could leave a man with young daughters in a bind, if the family dorm is full.

“There needs to be another program,” Hurt said.

How the program works

This is where Family Promise, part of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, will come in.

Between three and five families – up to 14 people total – will stay in local churches for a week at a time. The churches will provide a place to stay, as well as dinner, breakfast and a bagged lunch. The church doesn’t need to have beds or showers – the agency will transport beds from church to church, and have showers available at a proposed day center, where families can stay during the day if its members aren’t working.

Family Promise has enlisted seven host churches already and hopes for another six, said Sandra Willis, a board member, so each church will have a turn once a quarter.

“The families will be referred to us through social services,” Willis said. “People who have domestic abuse or alcohol problems will not be in our program.”

She said a volunteer from the church will stay overnight each night, to be available if assistance is needed.

Transportation will be provided to those staying at the churches who need rides to work or to job interviews, and also to school children, so they do not have to be uprooted from their home classrooms, said Barbara Clark, pastor at Anderson Street United Methodist Church.

“It’s a safe place for the children,” Clark said. “It gives them stability so they can stay in the schools where they’re zoned.”

The target time a family will spend in the program is about two months, Willis said, although their time will depend on their situation. A family might stay as long as two years, while they look for jobs and housing.

Newly unemployed

Many of the families coming to local food pantries lately have been newly unemployed, Willis said.

“They’re trying to hang on to housing,” she said. “They’re so overwhelmed.”

Pannell said one bad illness in a family could wipe them out financially.

“Here in the mountains where we are, we feel the effects of the recession later than others,” she said. “I work with people all the time, trying to help them find jobs and we’re seeing people who need help for the first time.”

The Family Promise initiative in Bristol has been in the works more or less since the United Way completed a needs assessment in 2009.

“We knew there was an issue of homeless families and children in our area,” said Lisa Cofer, United Way of Bristol’s executive director. “Once we got it completed, it was in black and white.”

There are already Family Promise programs in Johnson City and Kingsport, Willis said, but the need was great enough in Bristol that volunteers decided to start one in the Twin City.

“We just feel we need to be able to open our doors here,” she said.

Hurt said the 34 beds at the Salvation Army have been filled more frequently in the past six months to a year.

“I’ve never had this many people since I’ve been working here,” she said. “It’s grown in the last year or so.”

Local police departments had differing opinions on the homeless population in the city. In Bristol, Va., most of the homeless people officers run into on a daily basis are the same people, said Capt. Maynard Ratcliff. In Tennessee, there have been more reports filed with people listed as homeless, said Capt. Charlie Thomas with the Bristol Tennessee Police Department. He said he doesn’t know if that represents an increase in the number of homeless people in the city, or just an increase in the number police officers have dealt with lately.

Pannell said she’s in constant contact with Cofer through her job as a family self-sufficiency coordinator with Bristol Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and she guesses that not a week goes by that a homeless family isn’t in United Way’s office, looking for help.

“It is a real need,” she said. “And it’s growing.”

The needs

But to get the fledgling program off the ground, more help is needed from the community, organizers said.

“We need more money, and more churches involved,” Willis said.

Clark said churches who don’t feel they can host the group for a week can partner with other churches to provide meals or rides.

“I think churches worry about not having enough volunteers, but they can partner with other churches,” she said. “If liability insurance is a concern, they could contact the parent organization of Family Promise – support is available from a national office.”

She said members of the local board would be happy to meet with churches to provide information.

She’s worked with the program before, at a church in Chattanooga, Tenn., and is excited about bringing it to Bristol. Anderson Street is one of the churches involved, as well as First Presbyterian Church, First United Methodist Church, St. Anne Catholic Church, State Street United Methodist Church, Suburban Christian Church and Windsor Avenue Presbyterian Church. Blountville Presbyterian Church and Woodlawn Baptist church have signed up as support churches.

Volunteers will be trained, Willis said.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for churches,” she said. “It’s more than putting a dollar in the offering plate.”

And, it’s a good use of church space, Clark said.

“All of the churches have so much space that’s not used at night,” she said. I think that’s what God would want us to do with the space.”

The agency is also looking for a van, Willis said, to help transport people. They also need a space for the day center they hope to establish, which will ideally be a house with a yard, she said. There, volunteers can watch the children, help adults find jobs, training or housing, and spend time with those in the program.

“We can’t all be missionaries in foreign countries,” Willis said. “But this is a way to reach out right here in the community.”

For more information, or to get involved:

Sandra Willis, Family Promise of Bristol board member (423) 652-2442

Lisa Cofer, United Way of Bristol (423) 968-4912

Gordon Turnbull, president of the Family Promise of Bristol board (423) 764-7176

Pancake breakfast for Family Promise

When: Nov. 19 from 8-10 a.m.

Where: Applebee’s in Bristol


Reprinted with permission by Bristol Herald Courier:

Allie Robinson


(276) 645-2531

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