[Pathways] The congestion in Gwinnett County, Georgia, is hard enough to manage by car. Steven Jackson’s family of six had it even worse the night they had to leave their motel on Jimmy Carter Boulevard.
They were broke. They had no car. For Jackson, then a junior at Norcross High School, and his three younger siblings, this was the latest crisis faced with parents who battled various addictions. They had known days where they split up to find beds at various shelters, then reunited the next day to seek meals at soup kitchens.
Where would the Jacksons go? How would they get there? Even more importantly, how could they live a more stable life, without so much drama?
In transition, like more than 250 other families in the past 20 years, the Jacksons arrived at Rainbow Village – at first in Norcross then in Duluth – which became their vehicle to a new life. Started as an outreach ministry in 1991 by parishioners at Christ Episcopal Church in Norcross, Rainbow Village is a comprehensive program that provides fully furnished homes and support services for homeless families with children. They stay between one and two years as they start over.
Rainbow Village required the Jacksons to sign a covenant to live in their community, to contribute up to 30 percent of their income for housing, to attend and complete courses in life skills such as budgeting, parenting, debt repayment and credit repair, to volunteer in the community and to develop a self-sufficiency plan.
Most importantly, the Jacksons learned to trust their new patterns of stability, and their children saw what it took to live self-sufficiently. After the Jacksons left, like 85 percent of Rainbow Village graduates, they never were homeless again. Today the entire family is employed except for their father, who recently left a job working for Delta Air Lines as a chef.
“Rainbow Village taught my family responsibility and accountability,” says Jackson, now 29 and the children and youth program coordinator there. “With my parents’ addictions, I took on a leadership role with finances and budgeting, to better them and us. I learned that change happens to all of us, but with a village you can pull it together.”
The intense structure required by Rainbow Village attempts to meet the significant need of families and children in transition across Atlanta and its northern suburbs. In 2011, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development found that Georgia combined with four other states is home to half the country’s homeless.
Comparing all states since 2010, Georgia experienced the third-largest increase in homeless people. On a single night in Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb Counties, more than 1,000 families were homeless. Nearly 8,000 more families were homeless across the state. One group, the National Center on Family Homelessness, ranked states on how well each cared for homeless families; Georgia came in next to last.
Because so many families with young children are homeless, the average age of a homeless person in the United States, and in Atlanta, is 9. To help families transition permanently out of homelessness, parents must model better habits for their children. To create this vision at Rainbow House, a Christ Church parishioner named Nancy Yancey stepped in, having learned the hard way what positive change requires.
In 1991, Yancey relished a sliver of time to herself each week while her young children were in school and day care. She eagerly gave that up, however, after meeting a needy family through Christ Church’s Christmas outreach. Born and raised in Norcross, she wanted to help her community.
“It was a classic thing that churches do: take a basket of food to the family,” she recalls. “When I opened the door, I was appalled. I could see the ground through the floor. The elderly couple lived with their grandson, whose parents were drug addicts. After I dropped off the food and said a prayer and went home, I couldn’t bear it. I had to go back.”
For the next six months, the more needs she saw in their lives, the more she helped. She arranged for all the public assistance for which they were qualified, a subsidized apartment, and donated furniture. She helped them gain custody of their grandson.
A year later, when she returned, the family was “right back to their normal M.O.,” she recalls. “The son moved in and took all the money, did drugs and lost the apartment. I had taught them nothing about self-sufficiency, but only to be dependent on me. It was a huge learning curve.”
Yancey could no longer set a trained eye on what she was sure someone needed. That had worked in her career as an interior designer for the home furnishings coordinator at a department store. When she agreed to lead Rainbow Village 20 years ago, her task was helping families envision a new life for themselves – not do it for them.
The name for Rainbow Village hearkens to the biblical story of Noah, who suffered a traumatic transition when a tremendous flood wiped out his home and all the others as far as he could see. The rainbow serves as a reminder that God is constant throughout transitions, and that this particular village serves a rainbow of people as well.
The original inspiration came from Ida Costell, who always took in her teenaged son’s friends who had been kicked out by their families. When Ida died, her son, Josh, gave $25,000 to Christ Church to form a ministry for homeless families in her honor.
The church donated an additional $10,000 and labor to convert a condemned home into a duplex that began serving families in 1991, and Christ Church continued to furnish and maintain the homes. In 1993, Yancey became executive director and CEO; in 1995, Rainbow Village incorporated as a nonprofit.
(Eventually, in 1998, the work would lead to Yancey’s ordination as an Episcopal deacon. “She went from designing interiors of homes to interiors of souls,” the Rev. Joel Hudson, the founding rector of Christ Church and chair emeritus of Rainbow Village, likes to say.)
Initiative, development, accountability
Early on, Buckhead Community Ministries would send people to Rainbow House, and church members served on the screening panel. Later, school social workers provided referrals of families whose hungry children wore the same clothes to school each day. To live at Rainbow House, a family agreed to three principles: initiative, development and accountability.
The three tenets grounded Rainbow Village’s classes and counseling that address physical, emotional, financial and educational needs. Families acquire the tools to dig out of the quicksand that has sucked them down before: lack of affordable housing, employment and day care; cycles of poverty and domestic violence.
Some families at Rainbow Village struggled to overcome their own resistance to change, too. Says Yancey, “The biggest challenge has been to choose families that are ready and willing to make significant life changes.”
Transitions can be messy.
“We were one of the only families to leave and be allowed to come back,” Jackson recalls. “When we came back, our dad couldn’t come with us because he was pulling us down.”
Other families, including Bishop Keith Whitmore and his wife, Suzie Whitmore, have pitched in to help those at Rainbow Village. Between 800 and 1,000 volunteers a year help with, among other things, home maintenance and furnishings, special events, meals, administrative assistance, school supplies, tutoring and after-school activities.
“What I loved most was that they were not just worried about helping my mom, they actually paid attention to the kids and helped us,” says Tyera Braud, whose family – a single mom with six children – lived and learned to thrive at Rainbow Village. “What a lot of people fail to realize is that it’s not just the parents that have a rough time, the kids do as well.”
Lynnette Ward, a former resident who, like Jackson, now works at Rainbow Village, recalls arriving in 1997 without “a clue what I was getting myself into and not sure I could make it.” Before that, Ward had been in an abusive marriage for five years and moved from a battered women’s shelter in North Carolina to one in Georgia.
Her life further unraveled, but as she moved through that valley she experienced the transformational power of consistent love.
“Rainbow Village provided a place for myself and [my] children to heal. They provided assistance when my third child was born with major birth defects, by way of rides to the hospital and child care for my two young children at home. They stood by me when my second child was also diagnosed with major health issues,” Ward recalls.
“They found an attorney who helped me get a divorce. They worked with me on my financial goals and provided access to a Stephen minister. Rainbow Village helped me find matching funds for a down payment on my first home. They also worked with me as I began understanding my own self-worth. … My children and I have had a stable home for over 10 years because of what I have learned through Rainbow Village. My children have grown up watching God’s love by the actions of others. I have been given the gift that many mothers have naturally. I have a loving and caring relationship with my son, and after what I had been through with my ex-husband, I was not sure I would be able to have with any male.”
The gaining of trust, more than any other material belonging or tangible asset, impresses Franklin Rinker, a Christ Church member from Braselton who became a two-time Rainbow Village board member.
“I heard Nancy preach a Sunday sermon at Christ Church about needing money, and by writing a check, I got involved,” he says. A retired hospital CEO who coped with the rise of indigent care, Rinker knows about shepherding the needy through transitions. His
experience with building new hospitals helped Rainbow Village expand into a new apartment complex where 12 families now live.
The 12 apartments and Family Service Center are phase one of a three-phase campaign launched in 2010.
“In the health world, we talk about continuum of care, from the time you get sick and need to be hospitalized to post-hospital care,” he says. “There are a lot of similarities with Rainbow Village. We find broken people on their paths and help educate them and send them out as regained citizens who have good things in life to look forward to, instead of being beaten down and taken advantage of.”
“To be in a situation where you’ve been abused continuously and your children have been deprived, you don’t trust a whole lot,” he says. “But by the time families graduate from Rainbow Village, the parents and children give testimonials of what this has meant to them, and there’s not a dry eye in the house.”
A model for others
Today, Rainbow Village’s operating budget is about $900,000. The capital campaign has raised $4.6 million of its target $9 million toward completing an entire village with a family service center, community center and 30 apartments. The goal is completion by 2015 and becoming a model for others to replicate to support families who need to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness.
As former residents circle back to work at Rainbow House, their stories are powerful templates for current families in transition. Jackson says he recognizes the same fearful eyes and nervous disposition that belonged to him when he did not have a permanent home.
“You might be smiling, but you’re scared it will all change tomorrow,” he says. “You don’t know if you can be comfortable, especially after so many transitions.”
Amid foreclosures and unemployment, Rainbow Village’s largest segment remains single mothers and children. “However, in the past year we have served three single-parent fathers and their children as well as one two-parent family with eight children,” Yancey says. “This is largely due to unemployment for long periods of time.”
Rainbow Village is most resonant in its recognition of suffering as a portal to a richer life in which one’s past experience can benefit others.
“In looking at my life, I pray that it was to prepare me for something better,” Jackson says. “With what I have gained, I am very humbled, and I hope I will always have this feeling that I am still not too far away from being homeless. I want to stay humble and know that I can always give back, that I can reach back and reach others.”
— Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer in Decatur, Georgia, and a member of St. Bartholomew’s, Atlanta. This article first appeared in Pathways, quarterly journal of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta.