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As affordable housing shrinks, Families Together helps families overcome homelessness

Penny Thornton with her youngest son, Kaleb, 11, as he plays his guitar and sings “Stand By Me” at the family’s Raleigh apartment on Nov. 8, 2018.
Penny Thornton with her youngest son, Kaleb, 11, as he plays his guitar and sings “Stand By Me” at the family’s Raleigh apartment on Nov. 8, 2018. jleonard@newsobserver.com

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Penny Thornton sits outside a Panera Bread in North Raleigh, wearing the shirt of the dental office where she works as a receptionist. Like many of her fellow customers, she’s obviously a professional on her lunch break. She smiles easily and sports a stylish short haircut. Nothing about her indicates that Thornton was recently homeless.

Yet Thornton and her two sons did lose their old place after their rent increased but her wages did not. Thanks to Families Together, Thornton was able to bounce back. Now she’s in an apartment again.

“I do feel stable. I feel hopeful,” says Thornton. “I feel like life can get you down, but I know I don’t have to stay there.”

Families Together is a comprehensive nonprofit that provides temporary shelter for homeless families, helps them find affordable housing and then follows them for a year to ensure they don’t become homeless again. The nonprofit has filled this niche in Raleigh for decades.

The organization works closely with homeless families, mindful of the vulnerability of homeless children in particular. Its process involves much more than simply placing families in affordable apartments. There are also lessons in landlord-tenant rights and responsibilities, life skills, budgeting and self-care.

“We weren’t just treated as a file number or a case load. We were treated as a family that were going through something,” Thornton says. “These people genuinely wanted to help us.”

Down a gravel road in east Raleigh sit the pair of nondescript apartment buildings that serve as Families Together’s temporary housing. Headquarters is downstairs in one building, where the staff works two to an office, maximizing space so that the other apartments may remain open for families. Outside there is a playground, a basketball court and a garden.

“It hasn’t taken this long [to develop our program], but we’ve been in the community as an organization for 38 years,” says Jennifer Paul, Families Together’s development director. “We have a wealth of experience from being in the community and experiencing those changes and what the families are going through.”

The major change has been Raleigh’s skyrocketing growth and popularity, which has driven housing costs up. Wages, Paul notes, have not risen, meaning that low-income families that could previously afford their rent no longer can. Many of these families are evicted and end up homeless. Some go to shelters, but often adult men (or older teenaged boys) are separated from their families in these scenarios. Some live in motels until their money runs out. Increasingly, Paul says, families are living in their cars. As for options, affordable housing in Raleigh has become harder and harder to find.

“The wage you need to make to afford the average two bedroom apartment in Raleigh is almost $20 an hour for the household,” Paul says. “Twenty dollars an hour means you’d be spending almost 30 percent of your income on your housing.”

In mid-October, Paul analyzed Wake County Public School’s statistics, finding a 15 percent increase in homelessness over the year before. By her calculations, the number of homeless students has increased by 80 percent since 2010. Paul translates these statistics into individual experiences. Kids under 12 are particularly vulnerable, she says. The motels that homeless families can afford to stay in, for example, tend to be in high-crime areas, and are very bad places for children. “The trauma of being homeless is so great for them — their mental health, their physical health, their likelihood to be exposed to violence, the impact on their academic success,” Paul says. “The quicker we can move a family into their own place, the better for that kid.”

Thornton has seen her own two sons thrive thanks to Families Together. The youngest, a sixth-grader, registered for middle school while the family was living in Families Together’s temporary housing. He signed up for guitar lessons. Music makes the world better, he said, and he wants to be a musician for that reason. Now he sings for Thornton’s coworkers.

Thornton is thriving as well: Families Together partners with Habitat for Humanity, she says, beaming, and she has taken the first step toward being a homeowner. From housing her and keeping her family together to clearing Thornton’s eviction to providing activities for her kids to assisting with deposits and rent as she moved into her apartment, Families Together has enabled the family to bounce back from homelessness and become, really, just another Raleigh family.

“You’re already at your lowest low. You’re already down and you’re already out,” Thornton says of the homelessness she has risen out of. “Your kids see that. Your kids watch this flower unfold in you. [Families Together] gives your kids hope.”

Families Together

908 Plainview Drive, Suite 101

Raleigh 27610

www.FamiliesTogetherNC.org

Contact: Jennifer Paul, 919-212-1123 ext. 231 or admin@plmft.org

How to help: Volunteer to do office work, supply drives, maintain property and help with tutoring. You can also donate money.

$10 would buy engaging playground toys for children staying in our short-term housing.

$20 would buy a week of healthy snacks for children in our after-school program.

$50 would buy a child’s first two nights in a stable home

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