Homelessness. The numbers, sadly, continue to rise, and Akron is not immune to that increase.
Not having permanent shelter, particularly during the brutal winters this area has experienced during the past two years, has to be disconcerting, to say the very least.
Some families with children and pets risk being separated from one another because many homeless shelters do not accept both men and women — let alone an animal.
But here in Akron, one such facility does accept all family members — Family Promise of Summit County, an emergency hope center.
Helping Families of all Shapes and Sizes
“We service homeless families with children and their pets, that’s the distinction,” says Jeff Wilhite, Family Promise’s executive director. “And we don’t define family. That’s not our place.”
A traditional family may comprise a mother, father and children, but Promise looks beyond that and realizes that the separation of any members of a homeless family can be just as detrimental, if not more so, than the actual homelessness itself.
“A unique part” of Promise’s model is that it accepts fathers with children, Wilhite says, whereas other facilities may take in men, but the children may need to be housed elsewhere.
“That’s not healthy,” Wilhite adds. “Families can’t heal and grow when they’re separated. They are so worried about other family members dispersed that they can’t concentrate on what they need to — to get back into housing.”
Photo: Dale Dong
As of summer 2014, Promise has taken in a homeless family’s cats and dogs to make sure the entire family, critters included, stays intact during a difficult time.
PetSmart recently partnered with Family Promise to provide up to five grants annually to build kennels and cat condos in Promise affiliates.
“We were one of the five selected last year,” Wilhite recalls. “It was a $35,000 grant, and they did a great job.”
Founded 26 years ago, and now with 184 affiliates nationwide, Family Promise’s Summit County organization now has four kennels and four cat condos at its new Voris Street location. Prior to Voris, Promise was located in a two-story, three-bedroom property, which also housed administrative offices and limited space for the homeless, all of which made for a not-so-conducive arrangement, so animals were not permitted.
The impetus for the PetSmart grants came about when the company learned of a homeless family in Arizona who was refused shelter because they had a dog, Wilhite says.
“It makes a difference [to be able to bring a beloved pet to a homeless shelter] because when families come to us, they are devastated and hurting,” he explains. “And to have one more trauma in the mix could put them over the edge.”
Between 2009 and 2013, Promise helped 164 families, including 386 children.
“Unfortunately,” Wilhite shares, “numbers are going up.”
Historically, from late January to mid-April, the number of homeless families decrease. Wilhite says a tax refund during that time may temporarily allow a family to find permanent housing, but in the interim, a job may not have panned out, or the family may have experienced another setback, prompting an eviction. So homeless numbers may once again rise around June.
The demographic of homeless families for Family Promise Summit County is “across the board,” Wilhite acknowledges.
Typically, the organization sees single moms with children seeking help, but single dads with children have passed through its doors. But more recently, Promise assisted a family of four, which included a daughter and grandmother.
“The biggest issue with homelessness is clearly a lack of affordable housing,” Wilhite asserts. “Until this issue is resolved collectively in the community, whatever the government can do and the private sector, it’s always going to be an issue. Another problem is underemployment or lack of jobs.”
Promise Model: Sustainable Future
Two types of poverty inhabit homelessness — situational and generational.
The former may result from a divorce, death, the downsizing or loss of a job, wage reduction, et cetera,” Wilhite says, while the latter are “folks who have been trapped in the cycle of poverty.”
Attempting to lift folks out of homelessness, let alone trying to eradicate it, can be a costly endeavor.
One of the reason’s for Promise’s success is that it operates at a cost less than traditional shelters, which, depending upon space availability, may have to put up homeless folks in a motel for a night and pay for their meal, assuming funds are in place to do so.
Photo: Dale Dong
Instead, Promise partners with host congregations of various denominations across the county who, on a rotating basis, open their doors a week at a time to provide clients a warm bed at night and a meal. Back at the Promise hope center, volunteers feed, water and walk the clients’ pets.
In the morning, clients are driven back to Promise, where they can shower, make breakfast or lunch, do laundry in the provided washer and dryers, use the computer room, or “whatever it is they do in a course of a day,” Wilhite offers.
Adult also can work on their recovery plan, prepare for job interviews and visit with their pets. Children are driven to school. Many clients have no transportation and are given a Metro bus day pass.
“We have a contact list of roughly 1,400 volunteers and 27 congregations countywide,” Wilhite says enthusiastically. “The volunteer core [is what] makes this program work.”
Wilhite’s facility can accommodate up to four families, for a total of 15 people at a time.
An advantage of Promise’s new location is that within walking distance, about a mile, are 43 community service agencies that work in tandem with Promise.
Homeless individuals who do not fit the parameter of Promise are referred to another agency such as the Salvation Army or Haven of Rest. If in any case there’s a determination of mental illness or addiction, those folks are directed to community health professionals, as Promise, Wilhite says, does not have the resources to handle such cases.
Promise is graduating 100 percent of its families, thanks in part to the new facility, according to Wilhite, which enables about a 20-day time-frame for clients to graduate to a successful outcome. At the old location, it took between 30 to 45 days.
“This facility has given us what we need to be able to address the families in a very positive and efficient way where they can get through the program quicker.”
Once clients graduate from the Promise program, however, getting back on their feet costs money — even for the basics.
To help ease the transition upon graduation, clients are given a “going home” kit containing essentials such as an air mattress, towels, new bed pillows, blankets, pots and pans, dishes and utensils to provide them a “soft landing” in their new home, says Wilhite.
These and other items, such as gently used clothing, as well as monetary donations, are made possible by private donors, foundations and charitable organizations. And every dollar donation to Promise is matched with a $3 in-kind good or service.
Fundraisers also help Promise continue its mission, such as the “Get Back on Your Feet Walk” and the 9th Annual Family Promise Golf Outing scheduled to take place June 26, at Raintree Country Club in Uniontown. In January, Woodridge High School art teacher Chelby Codding and her students fired more than 100 ceramic bowls and raised close to $3,000 during a dinner and fundraiser for Empty Bowl, an initiative to raise awareness of and combat hunger.
After graduation, Promise continues to be a good resource for its graduates, providing or partnering them with classes including financial literacy and nutrition.
Photo: Dale Dong
“What’s exciting is we have some families that once they go through the program, will contact us to come back and volunteer to give back to the program that helped them,” says Wilhite.
Before being hired as Family Promise Summit County’s executive director in early 2013, Wilhite says he was “very involved in the community.”
His background includes 25 years experience in business administration in private industry and public service with the City of Akron and the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority.
When he heard about Promise, “It just blew me away…the mission, the volunteers, what the congregations do,” he offers. “It’s just an amazing story.”
He says are all welcome and encourages visits to Family Promise’s emergency hope center, located at 111 E. Voris Street.
At any time there are 4,000 people who are homeless in Summit County, Promise’s web site states. And for those folks with children and critters who may be without shelter, “We’re here to be a resource for you, and we respect you for who you are,” Wilhite says. “We want your family to feel respected when they’re here.”