After a few years as a coordinator at Long Hollow Baptist Church in Gallatin, Desneige VanCleve became aware of how big of a need there was to help struggling single mothers in Sumner County looking for work while facing food insecurity, homelessness and lack of transportation. There was always a waiting list at other shelters and organizations, if they could help them at all.
She began doing some research, networking and visiting several different counties and nations throughout the region to figuring out what the gaps were that put these women in their situations. Armed with a plan, Grace Place opened in July 2015.
“We are a shelter, faith-based nonprofit helping mothers and children experiencing homelessness, and our mission statement is empowering impoverished single mothers and their children toward developing healthy, safe and independent lives in the community,” she says.
Desneige began to see some patterns emerge about the circumstances that put these single moms in hard to get out of situations. Because of those patterns it is incredibly difficult for a woman to care for children or find affordable child care during the hours they can find work, and Grace Place aims to bridge those gaps that can prevent women from seeking help elsewhere.
“They serve the whole family and have a different model than Grace Place,” Desneige says of a collaborative partner, Good Neighbor Mission, the only other organization in Sumner County that helps with homelessness. “At that time, they could not serve unemployed – one person in the family had to be employed, they had to have transportation. And those were just some of the eligibility gaps I noticed on the phone from the families who were calling. They were mostly single mothers, mostly unemployed and many of them did not have transportation.”
Good Neighbor Mission and Grace Place work together often to meet the needs of Sumner County families struggling with homelessness, she says. And the need is only growing.
Transportation is one of the biggest problems women face. If they have been in any kind of legal trouble and the consequence has been a revoked or suspended driver’s license they can’t legally drive. If they choose to drive anyway to get to work and then get caught it is a spiral effect that can make matters worse. As part of the Regional Transit Authority van pool program Grace Place makes sure women in the program get rides to any appointments or interviews.
“One of the things that has led them to homelessness is they take whatever job they can get, most of the time it is restaurant or retail, which all requires second shift and weekends,” she says. “So, these moms are relying on friends or family to try and watch their kids so they can go to work. That is just not going to work long term. So, they have lost these types of jobs very consistently and very often because they can’t keep reliable child care.”
For a mother who must have child care, she has to be able to get a first shift, Monday through Friday job. But according to Desneige there is no child care facility open second shift or weekends in Sumner County. That is why part of Grace Place’s model is to give them the support it takes until they can find those first-shift jobs and affordable health care.
Most families find they through referrals from local churches and organizations. When Grace Place first opened, they could only serve three families at a time. Now they can serve five families in the shelter program and three in their graduate program for a total of eight. The hope is that number will only grow from here.
“We have a lot of really good ideas and visions for the future and pillars of support within the community,” she says. “We are trying to be patient to really learn what models are most effective over time. We don’t want these families to leave here and end up in the same situation again. We want this to be the last time they will ever go through something like this.”
Desneige’s own parents divorced when she was young and she was raised by her dad until about fourteen, then with her mom. Both were single parents so she can relate to some of the struggles and uncertainties the families she helps are going through. And since she has opened she has helped thirty-two families complete all the goals and graduate from the program.
So far, 100 percent of those women are still in their own place.
“What we are doing is really significant and is working,” she says.