Volunteers Hart Cobb, left, of Dunwoody United Methodist Church, and Bruce Richards of Temple Sinai, unload beds to be used by homeless families housed by Family Promise of North Fulton/DeKalb.
Volunteers Hart Cobb, left, of Dunwoody United Methodist Church, and Bruce Richards of Temple Sinai, unload beds to be used by homeless families housed by Family Promise of North Fulton/DeKalb.

Penina Richards brought flowers. It just happened to be Mother’s Day, and she thought a few vases filled with little roses, colored pink or peach or red, would brighten these makeshift bedrooms and make them feel a bit more welcoming.

“These women coming in are mothers,” she said. “I’m delighted to be here for them on Mother’s Day.”

Richards and her daughter, 17-year-old Marley, planned to stay the night along with the four other families that were scheduled to arrive that afternoon. As they awaited their guests, the Richards – Penina, her husband, Bruce, and Marley – spent the warm Sunday afternoon turning a group of religious classrooms at Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs into bedrooms.

For the next week, four of those bedrooms would provide temporary homes for four homeless families. “This room is their room for the week,” Penina said as she moved in boxes holding one family’s belongings.

The Richards had volunteered to help set up the rooms and meet the families as members of Family Promise of North Fulton/DeKalb, a new program organized by a dozen churches and synagogues spread across Sandy Springs, Dunwoody, Buckhead, Roswell and Alpharetta.

Family Promise Executive Director Bill Hardison.

Through the Family Promise program, member congregations provide places where up to four homeless families can live for a week. The host congregation supplies volunteers who sleep over, provide meals and otherwise support the families during that week. The families move from facility to facility, spending one week at one congregation, then moving on to another.

“The tenets of our faith tell us to care for those who are marginalized in society,” said Rabbi Bradley Levenberg of Temple Sinai, who chairs the local Family Promise board. “This is a great opportunity for us to live our faith.”

The original Family Promise program started about 25 years ago in New Jersey, Levenberg said. The interfaith organization now claims about 181 affiliated networks in 41 states, with 150,000 volunteers working in more than 5,000 congregations, according to the Family Promise website.

Networks have been established in communities large and small. About a dozen now operate in Georgia, said Bill Hardison, executive director of Family Promise of North Fulton/DeKalb.

A representative of the national group came to the north metro area about 18 months ago, Levenberg said, and started meeting with representatives of religious groups to convince them a local network was needed. The local congregations agreed. The group hired Hardison in January and hosted its first family in February.

“Why do this? There’s a need for it,” Hardison said. “There are families out there.”

“The basic premise is to solve homelessness one community at a time,” said Jenny Carter, director of finance at Dunwoody United Methodist Church, who volunteers with Family Promise.

From left, Penina and Marley Richards
turn a classroom at Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs into a temporary home for a homeless family.

Hardison works out of an office in the basement of St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church in Dunwoody, where the program keeps a day room for the families. The room contains toys for young children, a waiting area, and a computer room adults can use to look for jobs. The church also provides showers and a washer and dryer the families can use.

One thing that separates Family Promise from other homeless programs is that the program provides temporary housing for families, including fathers, mothers and children, representatives said.

“It’s an amazing thing to keep families together,” Penina Richards said as she rolled beds into classrooms that soon would become bedrooms.

The program also sets no age limit on the hosts, Levenberg said. That meant his daughter, Ilana, could stay over with him when he helped chaperone the first Family Promise family to stay at Temple Sinai.

“It was wonderful to be able to bring my daughter to do this with me,” he said. “The conversations afterward have power to be truly impactful. When we were going to sleep that night, she said, ‘They don’t look like poor people.’ We got into a tremendous conversation about what poor people look like. It helped her to understand her preconceived notions of who homeless people are.”

When the families were at Dunwoody United Methodist, Carter felt sort of like they were guests in her own home. In fact, she found herself helping one of the children prepare a book report that was due at school the following morning.

“She got 100 on it,” Carter said. “She made sure to tell me the next night.”

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.