Mentorship program provides congregations chance to address chronic homelessness

Tuesday, September 20, 2011 at 9:05pm
By Sarah Norris
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From left, GoTeach volunteers Marty Maitland, Jerry Buller, Carolyn Grossley Cooper, Barry Gammons (Eric England/SouthComm)

The book Same Kind of Different As Me recounts how a Dallas businessman’s friendship with a violent, chronically homeless man transformed them both. Barry Gammons can relate.

“When you deal with the issue of homelessness, the only way you can affect someone’s life is to know and understand them,” said Gammons, team leader of Nashville’s first Go Teach group of volunteers.

Gammons’ unexpected friendship with the then-homeless John Henry provided the impetus for Go Teach.

Going hand in hand with Housing First, Go Teach is a mentorship program inviting local congregations to take part in solving chronic homelessness. Started by The Key Alliance, a nonprofit division of the Metropolitan Homelessness Commission, Go Teach has three parts: mentorship, Adopt a Unit and fundraising. Since June, Gammons has spearheaded the pilot program at Covenant Presbyterian Church. As the program spreads, each congregation will hopefully have six mentors, committed for an hour a week for one year, playing an instrumental role supporting formerly homeless individuals transition in life.

After striking up a friendship with Henry, Gammons and Covenant members looked for ways to help. “Out of that came the Go Teach and the Adopt a Unit programs,” Gammons explained, the latter of which refers to the setting up of one household with furnishings and items.

“It’s great for someone to get an apartment,” Gammons said, “but the bigger part is how to deal with life. Bills, food, work. It’s overwhelming. The mentors help someone get back into society.” Through a fellow church member, Henry recently got a full-time job.

Every day, an estimated 4,000 homeless people live on Nashville’s streets. Housing First has housed 72 chronically homeless citizens, with a retention rate of 92 percent.

“The national average is 80 percent,” said Clifton Harris, executive director of The Key Alliance. “We’re knocking it out of the park.”

“You can’t solve the whole problem,” said Gammons, “but you can help someone. That’s what the Go Teach program is about. It’s a good opportunity to make a friend and walk with that person through life.”