Community partnership provides a roof and more to homeless families
When Cynthia Johnson (not her real name), a single mother of four, lost her job unexpectedly, her life began to take a traumatic turn for the worse. Because she was unable to keep up with the monthly mortgage payments on her house, in the city of Atlanta in southeastern United States, the bank repossessed it. With no place to live and with nowhere else to turn, Johnson and her children approached Nicholas House, Inc., a non-profit agency that assists homeless families. There, they found shelter and much more.
Nicholas House helps homeless families to make the transition to self-sufficiency in a structured but home-like environment. For a maximum period of two years, families are given a safe place to live, along with counselling, case management, assistance with life skills and other support services. Today, Johnson is hopeful of better times in the future. She is seeking permanent employment and is working towards getting her home back.
A safe environment for children
While adult residents at Nicholas House are offered the opportunity to develop life skills, their children are ensured a stable and nourishing home environment. Dennis Bowman, the agency’s Executive Director, lists the array of services provided for children. "Once children are in a stable situation, they go to the neighborhood schools,” he says. “We have an incredible after-school programme that assists academically, as well as socially and behaviourally. We have a nine-week summer youth camp that is all day long for all of the children who are with Nicholas House, so that while the parents are working, they don't have to worry about where their kids are. And what we've found is that the children really excel. In fact, at this one location here, we saw in one grading period over 50 percent of the kids being on the honor roll."
A Nicholas House volunteer who works directly with the children comments on how she has seen the children under her care grow. “What better way to help and support homeless children than by giving them the time and attention they need through play and learning? It helped me to understand that through conflict and hard times, children have the capacity to bounce back when given the right opportunities and the right environment.”
“Community partnership is key”
One of the reasons for the success of Nicholas House is its community-integrated approach to helping homeless families with children. Shona Dismuke, director of client services, speaks to the importance of such an approach: “Community partnership is key: we provide housing, the schools provide education, the mental health agencies provide individual counselling."
Because most shelters are gender specific, serving only men or only women and their children, homelessness often separates family members. Nicholas House helps keep families together by accepting the entire family, no matter what its size and make-up: expectant mothers, single mothers and fathers, couples and their children including teenage male children, and large families with as many as 10 members. Last year, housing and services were provided to 72 families, including 183 children. After two years of housing, families are offered an additional two years of aftercare services so that they can cement the gains they made while in the programme and maintain a self-sufficient lifestyle.
This structured approach has shown results. On average, two thirds of the families served here have moved on to stable housing and are able to manage their own finances and provide support for their children. By recognizing that a homeless family has more needs than shelter alone, Nicholas House offers parents and their children the skills and stability necessary to rebuild both their homes and their lives.