Bryan County is known for its charm, its good school system and its quality of life.
But it’s also got a homeless problem — and not just those adults who camp out under the overpasses at I-95 and 144 or 17.
At the end of the 2012-13 school year, there were 70 homeless students in Bryan County Schools. So far this year there are 45 homeless children in the system.
That’s part of what local religious leaders will discuss when they meet at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Richmond Hill United Methodist Church to begin to address the problem through a national faith-based initiative called Family Promise, which in the U.S. has more than 6,000 congregations and 160,000 volunteers on board.
Bryan County Family Connection Director Wendy Sims is promoting the meeting, which she said is a first step to helping homeless families get back on their feet.
Ideally, 13 churches will become involved — and so far there are four to five churches that are committed to helping while several others have expressed interest.
But this program isn’t just for churches.
“We would love for members of the general public to volunteer and be involved,” Sims said. “Right now we’re just trying to get the community together and commit to this meeting on Tuesday. We’re saying, ‘give us an hour and a half of your time.’”
During that time, Tom Cioffi, board president of the Family Promise Network in Gwinnett County, will speak about the program, which can take anywhere from 18-24 months to put in place as churches are brought on board and the funds are raised.
Through the Family Promise program, participating churches form a network, which, in simplest terms, provides shelter and aid to a set number of homeless families — one family per church.
They rotate from church to church until they’ve spent time at each one.
“(During that time) we work with those families to figure out what the problem is,” Sims said. “During the day we’re working with the families while the kids are in school. This is not just giving them somewhere to live — it’s empowering them to get back on their feet.”
While homelessness is a growing problem and one this community is not immune to, Sims said it’s hard to get a handle on exactly how many homeless people, let alone children, there are in Bryan County.
“The 45 students we can identify through the schools,” she said. “But what if they have siblings who aren’t in school? What about the ones we don’t know about?”
Though there are no local homeless shelters, United Way of Bryan County provides what help it can, and UW Director Kristi Cox spoke at a recent school board meeting about a high school senior who was living in a utility shed.
United Way and Family Connections was able to provide help to ensure he stays in school and graduates, Sims said.
“We’ve done everything we can for him,” she said. “He’s doing well. It’s a bad situation, but he’s living independently and able to help himself. The sad thing is we’re encountering younger children who can’t help themselves. Children who don’t have clothes or food.”
For Bryan County Schools Superintendent Dr. Paul Brooksher, making sure the schools are a constant for these children is important.
“Many times when a student is in crisis, the only stable and consistent thing they have in their life is school,” Brooksher said. “As a school system, we must do our best to meet the needs of these students by providing a safe and nurturing learning environment.
“I believe every child can excel no matter their circumstance as long as they are provided the right types of support and are believed in on a daily basis.”
Meeting homeless children can be heart wrenching, Sims said.
“It’s so far out of my scope. I can’t go out and buy somebody a house,” Sims said. “I wish I could, but I can’t.”
While some may be surprised at the number of homeless students here, the issue isn’t new to the county.
“This isn’t coming out of the blue for us. We’ve been dealing with this for three or four years now,” Sims said.
It’s also more prevalent in South Bryan in part because it’s more transient, but also because of the economic meltdown.
“All you have to do is look in the paper at the foreclosures, and every week people are losing their houses,” Sims said. “There are pages and pages of that.”
But it’s a problem that exists on both ends of Bryan County.
“Just (Monday) I got a call from a church in Pembroke about a family living in a car in Hendrix Park, a mother and a daughter who’s in 10th grade,” said Sims, who noted surrounding counties such as Effingham have already launched Family Promise programs in an effort to deal with their growing homeless populations.
“It’s a question of how can we network together so we don’t duplicate services and don’t spend so much money, but we’re also providing help for these families,” Sims said. “But it won’t work if we’re divided. We have to do it as one county”
For more information about the Family Promise meeting, call 653-3824.