Two-year-old Charli Conway ran up and down the deserted hallways of Shepherd of the Coast Lutheran Church on Wednesday. This was her home for the week.
Last week, she lived at St. Mark by the Sea Lutheran Church. And next week, she’ll live somewhere else.
Aside from Charli’s occasional laughter, the building was silent and bathed in fluorescent light rendered harsher than usual by the impending dusk outside.
The nearly empty church exuded afterhours.
Charli’s mother, Sara Conway, feigned a sprint several feet behind her.
“You’re too fast for me,” she said, falling back and watching her daughter disappear around a corner.
Being homeless shifts your priorities, she said. You stop caring about most things. You stop thinking about most things. You focus only on your children.
“In those days, all I could think about was where they would sleep, what they would eat and how to keep a sense of stability in their lives,” Conway said.
But that was before Family Promise Flagler.
About two months ago, Conway came to the group, which is a branch of a national nonprofit organization that provides temporary shelter to children and families as they transition from homelessness to autonomy.
Before that, she didn’t have a place to live with Charli and her older daughter, Erin, who is almost 6 years old. Starting in early 2011, they had bounced around different family members’ houses in Georgia and Florida.
“It was like waking up every day and wondering when it was going to be enough for the people we were staying with and we’d be, once again, without a place to live,” Conway said.
Prior to 2011, the family lived a normal life, Conway said. She was going to school at Daytona State College and had nearly completed her bachelor’s degree. When she first came to Florida to go to school, she lived with a group of friends like most students did, but eventually, she moved in with her boyfriend, who would eventually father Erin and Charli.
In 2010, the couple decided it would be most prudent if Conway went to school full time to finish her degree rather than working. She had no income of her own.
“And then, he left,” Conway said. “And I had no income at all. Things were hard.”
She started to work part time, but didn’t want to quit school because she was already in her junior year. She completed two more semesters while juggling her life as a single parent, a student and an employee.
Eventually, school became too much. She had no choice but to drop out. But even with the freed up time, she wasn’t able to earn enough. With two kids to support, a car to maintain and rent to pay, bills kept coming from all directions.
“Before I knew it, it was just gone,” Conway said. “All my money was gone.”
That’s when the three started house-hopping. It was hard to keep a sense of stability in her children’s lives when she didn’t know herself what her future looked like, but she tried to keep as much consistency in her parenting as she could.
She worked when she could, striving to save as much money as possible, because she knew her presence in her family members’ homes was a strain. Any day might be the last they could afford to have Conway and her daughters staying with them.
But at Family Promise, Conway knows she’ll always have food to eat, a place to sleep and gas in her car.
The organization works with 17 area churches to host families for a week at a time. Of them, 12 host families, while five provide support through volunteer work.
Not only do families stay in the church at night, but volunteers also cook dinner for them nightly. The support helps families in transition save as much money as they can so that, eventually, they can support themselves.
“We might be moving each week,” Conway said, “but what we do is the same. That’s what’s most important: having consistency in my daughters’ lives.”
On weekdays, Conway takes her children to school before coming to Family Promise’s day center. There, she helps out with chores and looks for a job on the center's computer to complement her weekend job.
In the afternoon, she picks her daughters up from school and brings them back to the day center to shower before they go to whichever church they’re sleeping at that week.
Flagler County's branch of the nonprofit opened its doors in June. Since then, the center has served six families — eight adults and 11 children.
Three of those families are now on their own and stable, but none of them is living on the streets, said Darla Otey, executive director of Family Promise Flagler.
Eventually, the organization hopes to open a facility that will house transitional families, allowing them the stability of sleeping in the same place each night. At that time, church volunteers would bring food to them rather than the other way around. The organization also hopes to acquire transitional housing to further help families find a place of stability.
“On its deepest level, Family Promise brings to light a need that is difficult for us to look square in the face as a community,” Otey said.
The organization serves as an access point for community members to work against homelessness in Flagler County, an issue that is present but difficult to sight.
Here, homelessness usually doesn’t look like sleeping beneath an interstate overpass or begging on street corners, Otey said. But that doesn’t mean it’s absent. There were 278 homeless children in Flagler County as of August.
“In a county with a population of less than 100,000, that’s significant,” Otey said.
For Conway, Family Promise Flagler has changed everything.
She’s working part-time on weekends and saving what she can, which is easier now that she knows her children have food and shelter, and that it’s not going anywhere.
Eventually, she wants to work more hours each week and support herself.
“I love everyone at Family Promise,” she said. “I come in here all the time. But I’ve told them that once I have my own place, they won’t see me for a few weeks. I’m just going to be sitting at home enjoying being with my kids in a place that’s ours.”
Until then, she’s making connections with other families in the program, letting her children experience different cultures and faiths and working toward financial independence.
As she played in the nursery at Shepherd of the Coast with her daughters, she knew somewhere on the other side of the building, volunteers were cooking a large dinner for her and her daughters. The generosity and welcome she’s found through Family Promise is not something she takes for granted, and it prompts her to work harder toward independence.
“I know I can do it,” she said. “Lots of women do it. I just needed help.”
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