About 20-30 families are without homes in any given month in Carbon County, state agencies say.
But local groups that work with children and families believe the number could be triple that, an organizer of Family Promise, an organization that helps the homeless, said Friday.
Family Promise was created in 1988 by a New Jersey marketing executive, Karen Olsen, who was troubled by the homeless people she saw while in New York City. Olsen realized, as she gave a sandwich to a homeless woman, that the food was a temporary, if crucial, fix. The homeless needed more than handouts; they needed solid foundations on which to rebuild their lives.
The nonprofit program has grown to 141 operating networks in 39 states.
Larissa Kimmel, who spearheaded the formation of Family Promise in Carbon County, detailed the program for members of Partners For Progress, a group of representatives of school and social service agencies serving the county.
Kimmel first became aware of the scope of homelessness as she guided people through the intake procedures at the Carbon-Monroe-Pike's MHMR program.
"I would see people for the first time who were entering mental health services who had no income, no insurance. And I just could not believe the numbers of people who were coming in and did not have a place to live," she recalled.
Kimmel spoke of the "hidden homeless – those families who have lost their homes and are bunking with a round of families and friends.
"They bounce from sofa to sofa," she said.
One day, a co-worker mentioned that she had become involved with Family Promise through her church. She went, with her pastor and his wife, to see a Family Promise program in Monroe County.
"I was just blown away. I thought, we need this in Carbon County," she said.
Kimmel hopes the program has enough volunteers and funding to begin operating in October.
Here's how the program works: Churches – the Carbon program needs 13 – sign on to shelter four to five families in the church for one week at a time. The churches rotate the housing responsibility, so that each church hosts families three or four times a year.
During the day, the families would go to a day center. The Carbon group has a van that would transport the families. There, they could shower, do laundry, have breakfast and lunch, search for jobs and apply for educational programs. They would work with a director on establishing goals – increasing their education, seeking benefits, earning money, "finding a way to be on their feet again, supporting their children," Kimmel said.
Children attending school would be picked up by their home school district's buses and taken to classes.
Carbon County HeadStart director Bernetta Frantz said that homeless children are automatically eligible for that program.
At night, they return to the host church for a family-style, home-cooked meal and socialization with volunteers.
Families can stay in the program until they are able to find housing and have attained the skills needed to maintain their independence. The average stay is 53 days, she said.
The success rate of Family Promise is about 89 percent, nationally," Kimmel said.
"Volunteerism is what really makes this program work," Kimmel said. Volunteers make meals, mentor, guide and just visit with families.
As of now, Family Promise has enlisted the support of eight churches, with two more on the verge. Zion United Church of Christ in Lehighton and Sacred Heart Church in Palmerton are among those committed to the program.
While the search for churches is almost done, the Carbon group is still pulling together funding. Kimmel figures it would take about $90,000 a year to run the program.
The group, which has obtained official nonprofit status, is seeking donations and plans a variety of fundraisers, including the "180 Club," in which people donate "$180 to turn families' lives around 180 degrees," she said.
Partners For Progress has agreed to support Family Promise of Carbon County. Those who wish to help can contact Kimmel at (610) 577-5060.