When Donna Taylor found her way home, she had been walking in the rain with three of her children, “trying to figure where I was going to rest my head for the night.”
That was about a year ago. Now, Taylor is housed, employed and ready to help another family make the change. You could say she’s come full circle – as in “Circle of Support.”
“To me, that’s great,” she said.
Circles of Support are volunteer teams within religious congregations that work with individuals or households after leaving homeless shelters. Several Durham nonprofits set it up in 2010, with Genesis Home becoming the lead agency and paying program expenses after a turf dispute during reorganization of the city-county “10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.”
“We had a pretty turbulent inception,” said Genesis Home Director Ryan Fehrman.
Two years later, three Durham congregations – St. Philip’s Episcopal, Immaculate Conception Catholic and Workers in God’s Service – have Circles working with families, said program coordinator Tasha Melvin. One other, at Peace Covenant, is organized but not yet matched with a client household, and three others have said they are interested.
“What we’re trying to provide is hope for our families,” Melvin said. “To let them know they’re not in this alone.
“Many of our families ... end up homeless again because they don’t have the support.”
Support can come in many ways, said Bob Zozus, a clinical psychologist in the Immaculate Conception Circle that supported Donna Taylor.
“We have taken them to church, supported them as they went through some challenging life issues,” Zozus said. “We have provided needed rent support on two occasions ... helped them with their utilities a few times. We have attended concerts given by the children. Helped them procure an electric scooter to aid their transportation.”
Taylor is a single mother of seven children, ranging in age from 3 to 23. Originally from Trinidad, she had lived in New Jersey for 20 years but found herself not only unable to meet that state’s high cost of living with her $7.50 per hour job, but needing to escape domestic violence. She came to Durham with her younger children and her savings and anticipating an income-tax refund to get the family established.
At first, there was help from some relatives and friends but her savings weren’t enough to get into an apartment and it was hard to find work.
Before long, Taylor said, she ended up at the Durham Rescue Mission; there, though, her 17-year-old son wasn’t allowed to stay with her and the younger children. He ended up on the streets.
Unable to find places at another shelter and unwilling to leave her 17-year-old out on his own, Taylor left the Rescue Mission. That was when she found herself in the rain with nowhere to go.
Then, she got a phone call from the Interfaith Hospitality Network, which houses homeless families in churches. It was about to have an opening. Taylor and her family stayed there for two months, her tax refund came through, she got a job as a dormitory housekeeper at Duke University and, when she got an apartment of her own there was a Circle of Support.
“They helped my family so much,” she said. “In the next month or two I’m going to be out of the group as a family they’re helping but I’ll be in the group as a person that’s working with them with other people. To me, that’s great.”
That’s good, said Laura Hughes, another member of Taylor’s Circle.
“Any new family can benefit from her example,” Hughes said. “Really, the success of this particular effort has been because Donna has had the right motivation and been willing to work hard.”
Circles of Support have a year-long formal association with their clients, and Melvin said she is actively recruiting more groups to form them.
“Any church, any faith organization that will hear me,” she said. “We’re open to anyone who wants to support a household, that has the time and the interest.”