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 | By Joey Reistroffer

Family Promise battles homelessness in Aiken

Homelessness can be a stain on a community. Some chalk it up to others’ bad luck, then turn a blind eye and move on, ignoring a problem that’s not about them.

But not the folks in Aiken at St. Mary Help of Christians, other faith communities in the area,  Catholic Charities of South Carolina’s Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Center or the local St. Vincent de Paul.

And certainly not Liz Stewart.

“We do have an almost homeless epidemic. There is very little in the way of shelter,” Stewart said. She’s a parishioner at St. Mary and chairs the parish Pastoral Council.

She said that when the church was searching for a way to become more involved in the Aiken community, homelessness received the most input — specifically the plight of homeless children.

One in six children across the U.S. lives in poverty; most will experience poverty as an infant, and 27 percent of children in South Carolina live in families that have “a high housing cost burden.” Statistics get even starker: One in 30 children experience homelessness before the first grade, according to a U.S. Department of Education report. These children are three times more likely to be placed in special education programs, eight to nine times more likely to repeat a grade and 42% have dropped out of school at least once. Nearly 50% suffer from anxiety, depression or withdrawal, and they are seven times more likely to attempt suicide.

That is why parishioners at St. Mary Help of Christians became so passionate about partnering with other faith communities in Family Promise. The organization has a track record that proves it works, and very few of the families it helps return to the streets. The movement has 200 affiliates in 43 states, involving 200,000 volunteers in 6,000 congregations, according to Stewart. 

Their goal is to prevent homelessness, build skills and ensure that families are able to stand on their own. It works. It offers hope. The people of Aiken have united behind it.

“It’s a coalition of many churches in the community,” Stewart said.

They began to organize several years ago and while it was picking up steam, COVID-19 sidetracked everything. As the pandemic eased, the movement again came together even though St. Mary parish changed pastors. Fortunately, their new pastor, Father Richard Wilson, also supports the work. 

The Family Promise community of faith is at work again.

“There are a lot of ‘working poor’ who are one paycheck away from living in their car. It is a huge problem, and it’s going to take a multi-pronged approach to fix it,” Stewart said.

The first prong is to identify families at risk. The community uses the school system for this, since children are the key.

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act requires schools to note students “who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” This allows Family Promise to recognize those who need help and enact the second prong: Finding out what a family needs to stabilize itself, then helping them reach that goal.

The organization offers a four-week course on tenancy. It gives insight into setting goals, prioritizing a budget, understanding a lease, finding affordable housing and keeping it, understanding a renter’s legal rights, even establishing solid relationships with neighbors and landlords.

Those who have gone through the course then have the knowledge they need to make better choices, keep essential documents, diffuse problems with neighbors and take responsibility for their lives. Stewart said this course is open to the public.

“We are going to be offering this to some of our own parish youths,” she added.

Family Promise worked with the National Association of Realtors to develop the program, but it is the community who works to present the curriculum.

“It’s all taught by volunteers,” Stewart said, those who are well-versed in finance, realty, law and other essential sectors.

Other volunteers pitch in to prepare meals or care for children while moms and dads take the class.

“There’s very little recidivism. The majority do not end up homeless again,” Stewart said. “These are people who want to help themselves.”

And they do. The coaches, or case workers, who assess a family’s needs develop a strategy to put them back on their feet and keep in touch. If a family stumbles, the case workers can call on Family Promise volunteers to lift them up. They might need help with job skills or even a babysitter. Sometimes they just need support or a little push. If they are struggling to keep food on the table or buy clothes for their children, Family Promise is there to do what needs to be done. 

Stewart said they help people to make sustainable changes, and that many “landlords seem much more supportive in working with them because of Family Promise.”

It takes funding to solve larger issues.

“Fundraising is big,” Stewart said. “We are in the start-up phase and seeking more volunteers,” at St. Mary Help of Christians.

Its first project is a grand rummage sale this month to fill the Family Promise coffers. The clock has already started, Stewart said. Folks have been donating items for the sale since the spring.

“All that money will go to Family Promise,” she added.

And all that support will go toward ending homelessness in Aiken.

The rummage sale to benefit Family Promise will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 22-23 at St. Paul Lutheran Church, 961 Trail Ridge Road in Aiken. Visit

Joseph Reistroffer is a long-time writer who teaches religious education classes at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Spartanburg. Email him at