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Friends and Neighbors offers hand-up approach to break cycle of homelessness

By KINDLE HORTON • Mar 19, 2017 at 11:00 AM

After a hard day’s work, on her feet, waiting tables, smiling and joking with her customers as if everything was right in the world, she grabs her keys and glances at the smiling faces of her children on her cell phone screen. But she isn’t going home. She doesn’t have one and neither do her children.

“Our situations are the ones you don’t think about,” said Mel Matheson, the new executive director of Friends and Neighbors. “They’ve left an abusive relationship, had a messy divorce, lost their job, or simply can’t survive on minimum wage earnings.”

Friends and Neighbors has been offering a hand-up and not a hand-out approach to break the cycle of homelessness for Kingsport area families with school aged children since 2011.

Matheson, who has more than 30 years of experience in case management and social work, isn’t a new face to the nonprofit, Christ-centered organization. He has been working as Friends and Neighbors’ case manager for about five years. Matheson places families in one of the organization’s 10 homes, provides case management support, offers them financial counseling, renews their hope, ministers to them, helps them find jobs, makes routine repairs, manages administrative duties and holds them accountable as well as many other tasks.

“When I came aboard, I’d never worked with the homeless,” said Matheson.

After several years of working with Joe Mason, the organization’s former executive director, Matheson stepped up to the plate late last year as the new executive director when Mason semi-retired.

So, why would anyone take on this much responsibility?

“Conviction. After a lot of prayer, it’s what the Lord has led me to do,” said Matheson.

“It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had, but it’s those success stories that make it all worthwhile,” he said, “like the lady and her daughter who lived with us for eight months to get back on her feet and then bought her own home. I live for those moments!

“We’ve learned a lot over the last five years. Offering two-year transitional housing may not be enough. We’re moving to a permanent supportive housing model,” he stated.

“That doesn’t mean that we’ll keep families in our homes forever. Having a deadline is often stressful for families. Saying you have two years and you’re out makes it sound like we’re only going to care that long. These families need support. They didn’t make it into the program because of a lifetime of good decision making. Some families only need a few months to get back on their feet, some need longer.”

The other main reason for the change relates to funding options. Friends and Neighbors operates almost entirely off of private donations and fundraising. There are grants for permanent supportive housing, not two-year housing.

“We need help with fundraising. It’s a blessing how this organization survives, but we must have additional funds to keep going,” said Matheson.

You may have seen Matheson’s jars at businesses around town. A humble servant of God, asking for donations isn’t something that comes easy for Matheson. However, while monetary donations are necessary, there are many in-kind and volunteer opportunities to help.

“Our homes often need repairs, gutters cleaned, painting between families, carpets cleaned, and normal upkeep. We want our homes to be nice, clean and neat when a family comes to us. We’re here to help and encourage them,” said Matheson.

Families are required to pay a small rent payment, they’re required to pass drug tests and fulfill 100 hours of community service with the ultimate goal of self-sufficiency. Matheson is there to support them and show grace when it’s needed, but he is also there to uphold the standards of the program. These families are expected and required to improve their situation.

“They can do it. We’ve raised credit scores, renewed their hopes in financial institutions, and what I’m most proud to announce is that two of our families recently were placed in brand new homes through the Appalachian Service Project program,” said Matheson.

Those homes are built by volunteers, and families placed in the residences will be required to pay taxes, insurance and utilities for five years, and then the home will be theirs.

“What a blessing it can be to own their own homes after dealing with homelessness,” said Matheson.

“They still have five years ahead of them, but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’m so proud of these families and all the people that have helped this happen through their donations of money and time. God has truly used this program,” he said.

Friends and Neighbors is seeking support from the community. There are many great opportunities for youth groups, local mission workers, and volunteer service organizations to help the organization.

Maybe you’d like to help at the Tri-Cities Upscale Consignment Sale at MeadowView Conference Resort and Convention Center on March 23rd, 24th and 25th. The $1 donation at the door goes directly to Friends and Neighbors. And all proceeds from the Dollar Dash on March 25th at 7 p.m., where you can shop name brand clothes and toys for a dollar an item, goes directly to support the fight against homelessness.

“We need volunteers from 5-9 p.m. on Saturday night for that sale. But just coming to shop helps, as long as you don’t forget your dollar,” Matheson says with a smile.

“Currently, we have two big fundraisers that occur twice a year. One is the Tri-Cities Upscale Affordable Consignment Sale at MeadowView and the other is at the race in Bristol. Without these, there’s no way we could make it.”

For information about donations, volunteering, or other questions, call Matheson at 863-2900 or email him at friendsinc@yahoo.com. Matheson is adamant that as long as the organization exists, the mission of the organization will not change: to reduce homelessness in Kingsport one family at a time.

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