Right now, according to the Community Dashboard on Homelessness, over 2675 people are homeless in Knoxville. A little less than a quarter of that number are homeless for mental or health reasons or criminal activity. If you’ve only encountered homeless people when driving down Broadway or walking downtown, you may associate the entire homeless population with these defining characteristics of a few.
However, over half of Knoxville’s homeless population lacks housing for reasons any of us might have experienced before. They may have lost a job, been evicted, encountered domestic violence, or simply made one too many poor financial decisions.
Jim Plemmons, First Baptist member and Family Promise Co-coordinator with Kennie Riffey, has been working with the homeless population since 2005. Both recognize the disparity between how people perceive homelessness and how it actually is.
“We’re often scared of homelessness,” says Jim. “We don’t even know really what it looks like. It can be scary and make you think you have to be trained or be an expert to deal with it. But most people are just folks like us.”
For First Baptist, where families with children are a vital part of our ministry, the homeless population might be closer to home than we think. The Dashboard on Homelessness reports, in fact, that 231 families are homeless right now - a family
Family Promise does exactly what its name suggests – it promises a future for parents and their children. It is an organization that coordinates with local churches to provide temporary housing to homeless families. Every week a different church hosts families in their building. Volunteers set up and break down the living quarters, cook meals, eat dinner with the families, or serve as overnight hosts. First Baptist serves on a quarterly rotation. Families normally arrive at the church around 5 pm each evening for a week and leave each morning at 7 am. During the day, Family Promise transports families to the day center, where they work with participants to procure jobs, counseling, financial management, and most of all, permanent housing.
The Knoxville chapter can support 5 families at a time, who usually stay in the program for about three months before they are situated in permanent housing. During that three months, they have a safe place for their children and the loving community of local churches.
Jim, who is often present every night of the week when First Baptist hosts, attests to the blessing volunteers and families glean from one another.
“As the week goes on,” he says. “They settle in and really just love spending time with the volunteers. The kids will just crawl up in your lap. They want to be read to. They want positive attention. You get to be close to these families and get to know their story, and you realize these are single moms or single dads. These are folks who just fell on a hard time, and we’re not here to fix them. We’re just here to provide a safe place and love on them.”
Over the years, Jim has come to view Family Promise as a “mission trip at home.” While it takes about 50-60 volunteers to make it happen each quarter, it really only requires a small commitment on the part of each person.
Judy Russell has been coordinating the food since First Baptist began hosting Family Promise 12 years ago. She works with about 30 people each quarter to bring
Family Promise can even be an opportunity for your whole family to serve. Several parents, including Jim and his wife, Emily, have brought their middle or high school aged children to volunteer when we host families in our church.
“Our kids get to play with the Family Promise kids,” says Jim. “And they also get this experience of seeing their parents and the church engaged with these families.”
So, what’s the payoff of a small commitment on the part of a lot of people? Well, nation-wide, Family Promise has a success rate of 74%, so it is literally changing lives. Even after the families are settled, Family Promise remains in contact.
“Not all their problems are solved just because they got into housing,” says Jim. “There are still issues that have to be dealt with, so Family Promise follows up with them and stays in touch as a resource for two years to make sure they’re applying what they learned. That’s why it has such a good record of people staying in housing once they're in.”
Family Promise gives stability to mothers and fathers and their children. These are people who want the best for their families. People who seek safety and love. People who are just like you and your children. We are thankful to partake in such a ministry.
There is room for you if you would like to give a small part of your time to make a huge impact in the life of a family. The way Family Promise is structured makes it flexible enough that even if you need to be at work at 8 am, you can still spend the night because the families are out by 7 am. Even if you aren’t a conversationalist, you can still provide a meal. Even if you can’t cook, you can still provide a listening ear or love on a child. There is something for everyone within this ministry, and it is in a non-threatening environment.
“Family Promise is a safe way to get involved,” says Jim. “It’s always scary for a volunteer the first time, and it was for me too. But generally, it’s the easiest thing in terms of conversation, and once you do it, you’ll realize whatever was scary wasn’t there. It’s a vital ministry for our community and a way for us as church people to show the love of Jesus.”
Our next Family Promise dates are November 12-19. To get involved, contact Jim Plemmons at or Kennie Riffey at !