PEOPLE HELPING PEOPLE: Defining homelessness

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

By Nancy Yancey

How do you define homelessness?

• Is it living in a friend’s apartment while you look for work?

• Is it moving your kids from shelter to shelter because you can’t find affordable housing?

• Is it sleeping in your car?

Homelessness is a situation; it does not define a person. We are all people who need the same things: love, care, nurturing, and a safe place to call home. Our 22 years of experience working in North Metro Atlanta has taught us a lot about the face of homelessness in our community. There is a common misconception that homelessness is only an inner-city issue — a consequence of bad choices made earlier in life, a result of laziness, or drug use, or addiction. But homelessness in North Metro Atlanta is a family issue. It is estimated that 60 percent of the homeless family population in Gwinnett County is children, and 50 percent of the children are under the age of 6. Here are some of the stories Rainbow Village graduates tell about how they became homeless.

“Before coming to Rainbow Village, I had a very happy family, good job and a rather well-to-do life. After job loss, business shut downs, a long divorce and settlement, then foreclosure . . . I found Rainbow Village;”

-- “Our van was stolen and we used our small savings for a down payment. With car payments and job cuts and eventually job loss, we ended up in a bad situation. We were also worried for what this would mean for our kids academically, they were in the gifted program;”

-- “Before my family and I came to Rainbow Village, I was living in a townhome and I was very happy. I lost my job which caused me to become behind on most of my bills. I got little small jobs here and there but it just wasn’t enough. I fell so far behind that I got evicted from my townhouse;”

--”We put most of our savings into a business that later failed, leaving us with those bills to pay and very little to live on.”

-- “Before we came to Rainbow Village, I was constantly worried about where we’d live because we’d fallen severely behind. Hardships kept compiling, especially when both our jobs cut our hours. We were barely living from check to check and borrowing money from friends and relatives. “

In this economy, homelessness is becoming even more prevalent.

As one formerly homeless Rainbow Village friend put it, “you don’t choose this, it sometimes chooses you.” The newest at-risk individuals for becoming homeless are low-income families who lack access to resources for first and last month’s rent payments and the security deposit. These families are becoming Georgia’s “new homeless.” Children are even more affected. The high school graduation rate for homeless children is less than 25 percent. Did you know that the difference in lifetime earnings with a high school degree versus without is $200,000?

Georgia ranks 49th out of 50 states in child homelessness and 1 in 20 children in Georgia do not know where they will get their next meal. Family homelessness has a significant effect on the well-being of children. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, 83 percent of homeless children had been exposed to at least one serious violent event, a fact that has lasting consequences, as children who witness violence are “more likely to exhibit frequent aggressive and antisocial behavior, increased fearfulness, higher levels of depression and anxiety, and have a greater acceptance of violence as a means of resolving conflict.”

Children experiencing homelessness also are sick four times more often than other children, go hungry twice as often as non-homeless children, and have three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems of non-homeless children. School-aged children experiencing homelessness show similar struggles in their academic performance. They are four times more likely to show delayed development, and have twice the rate of learning disabilities as non-homeless children. Over the long term, poor students are twice as likely as non-poor students to have to repeat a grade, be expelled, get suspended from school, or drop out of high school. Without even a high school diploma, these children will be unable to access higher-paying jobs, and are at risk of continuing the cycle of poverty and homelessness.

Providing for the needs of homeless families takes a village. None of us are experts on homelessness; but we learn by being in community with our families and listening. Our families are our teachers. They keep us grounded in our work and bless us with love, inspiration, and mutual respect. We meet our families wherever they are in their journeys. Our work is a call to service, an honor, and a blessing. We are humbled by the courage and perseverance of the families who come into our community, who endure through violence, oppression, disrespect, abuse, and neglect.

We are in awe of the power of God at work in transforming lives, because that is the power that leads these people forward to become self-sufficient, and to be able to break the cycle of homelessness. We want our families to go forward from Rainbow Village with the resources and stability they need to bless their children and their grandchildren. Through an intense education and counseling program, along with specialized services for children and youth, Rainbow Village families are able to break the bonds of homelessness.

Since 1991, we have served over 800 individuals (men, women, children and youth) in transforming their lives from ones of hopelessness to futures of promise. Rainbow Village is committed to continuing its work of assisting families to become whole and breaking the cycles that may have bound them for generations. Successful families are those that leave Rainbow Village to move into an affordable home of their own. The adults are earning a livable wage and have approximately three months of savings to fall back on in the case of an emergency. They have also reduced their debt and are successfully managing their income and expenses. Successful families are equipped with tools to sustain them as they move forward to productive lives. Children have renewed hope and promise for the future knowing they can accomplish their dreams. The children and youth of Rainbow Village are successfully breaking cycles of homelessness, poverty and domestic violence permanently for generations to come. They are our greatest hope and our greatest investment: lives forever transformed by the power of a community of support, education and love. Raising a healthy, happy child does indeed take a village and Rainbow Village is a refuge of hope, a safe haven of help, and a supportive and nurturing community for families on the journey to self-sufficiency, freedom from the shackles and cycles of poverty, homelessness, and domestic violence.

To learn more and support Rainbow Village, call us at 770-497-1888 or visit our website at www.rainbowvillage.org.

Rev. Nancy Yancey is CEO of Rainbow Village.

People Helping People is a publication of the Gwinnett Coalition for Health & Human Services. For more information contact Ellen Gerstein - ellen@gwinnettcoalition.org or at 770-995-3339.