Seven years ago, a little blurb appeared in the paper asking anyone interested in helping homeless families in our community to come to a meeting.
Many people wondered what the organizer, the Rev. John Ring of Bluffton, was talking about. Homelessness in paradise? Homeless mothers and babies? Was he kidding?
Carolyn Cherwon of Sun City Hilton Head read the blurb and was intrigued. Today she is board president of the organization that grew from that little blurb: Family Promise of Beaufort County.
It addresses homelessness for adults with children.
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"We live in these beautiful gated communities," Cherwon said. "You don't see it. But we're not looking, either."
As Family Promise of Beaufort County marks five years of operation, and the national Family Promise organization celebrates its 25th anniversary this week, more people in Beaufort County see homelessness.
"We've come light years in identifying the scope of the problem and translating that into long-term solutions as opposed to Band-Aids," said Fred Leyda. He is director of human services for Beaufort County government, and oversees the Beaufort County Human Services Alliance, a partnership of more than 120 public and private agencies that provide human services.
Seven years ago, the alliance, then under Susan Milne, saw the problem of homelessness and asked Ring to explore the creation of a Family Promise chapter.
At the time, an annual statewide survey showed 33 homeless people in Beaufort County. A state Department of Education report showed 41 homeless children enrolled in Beaufort County schools.
Today's best estimates are 4,000 to 5,000 homeless people in Beaufort County, including 350 children, Leyda said.
"There's still a debate about the numbers," Ring said. "Most of the homeless in this area are hidden. They live in cars, or move around from house to house with friends or family members. And it's a rural area. They're not as visible as they are in an inner-city."
Ring said the community immediately saw ways to help.
Family Promise works because 13 churches in the county host up to four families at a time for one week, four times a year. Another 22 congregations provide everything but the facility. That includes all meals.
Not all of the 600 Family Promise volunteers are involved with a church.
But Cherwon sees it as a way to live her faith. "This gives you the tools," she said.
Executive director Elliott Brown said the group has served 16 families so far this year.
The families average 2.5 people and usually consist of a single mother with preschool-age children. They remain sheltered an average of 70 days. Their main challenges are steady full-time employment, daycare and transportation.
The adults are more likely to work two part-time jobs, she said, but even a full-time job will not enable most clients to afford a two-bedroom apartment.
In southern Beaufort County, the trend is jobs without affordable housing, and in northern Beaufort County, it's housing without jobs, Brown said.
From the outset, volunteers work with families to get them on a sustainable road to independence. They work through a covenant called "90 Days to Success." They have the option of a 12- to 18-month after-care program dealing with life skills, budgeting and other non-crisis help.
Brown said 87 percent of the families move from homelessness to housing. She said this way of dealing with the problem costs a third of what it costs to operate a homeless shelter.
Other local organizations are working with the homeless.
Citizens Opposed to Domestic Abuse and the ACCESS Network both have a housing component, Leyda said.
On Hilton Head, the Hunger and Homeless Coalition was formed in 2010, including its Homelessness Task Force.
In northern Beaufort County, a potential faith-based homeless shelter for adults is in the talking stage, Leyda said.
But more important, agencies are communicating better to coordinate social services. They now use an online Charity Tracker database. It helps them address the roots of problems, Leyda said.
Ring thinks Beaufort County needs a homeless shelter for adults.
But he said Family Promise is doing what it set out to do.
"One thing it really does well," he said, "is keep kids in school. It keeps them well-fed and in a safe place at night. The children are often the victims in this because of circumstances they don't control or decisions adults have made. It's a joy to give those kids a chance. That's the real joy of Family Promise."
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.