Bringing ‘promise’ of stability for homeless families

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The Rev. Carter McInnis likes the Family Promise program for homeless families because it balances hospitality with responsibility, avoiding the trap of “toxic generosity.”

Robert Beck helped organize his Family Promise affiliate because few services existed for such families in his mostly rural county.

Jill Hostetler, who has served as a Family Promise volunteer in four different states, appreciates its flexible national model. “You may have to tweak your program a little bit in one area to make it fit, but overall the program is very successful,” she said.

Karen Olson, the organization’s founder and president, counts the three among the United Methodists who comprise 20 percent of all volunteers and congregations among the 182 Family Promise affiliates, known as Interfaith Hospitality Networks, in 41 states and the District of Columbia.

Olson, a Presbyterian, is not surprised by that statistic. “They’re very mission-minded,” she said of the denomination. “This is something United Methodist congregations want to do.”

On the community level, Family Promise helps homeless families become independent by mobilizing houses of worship for lodging, congregations for volunteers, social service agencies for assessment and referrals and existing facilities for day programs. The cost is about a third of traditional shelters, the organization says.

From sandwiches to shelter

For Olson, the concept started in the early 1980s as she was distributing sandwiches to the homeless in New York. She quickly realized that entire families were among that population.  When she started volunteering near her home community in Union County, N.J., she became aware of the critical need for shelter for those families.

Olson wanted to get faith groups involved, so she organized a conference. To her surprise, 200 people from various churches attended.  “When I started out, it wasn’t a grand plan, but I think one step leads to another,” she explained. “The more you know and understand, the more you want to do.”

The concept spread to other locations, first in New Jersey and then out of state. Twenty-five years ago, the national organization of Family Promise, then called the National Interfaith Hospitality Network, was born.

Enthusiastic response in Wisconsin

In 2010, members of the adult Sunday School class at Monroe (Wis.) United Methodist Church were shocked to learn from a Green County staff member that homelessness was a problem in their county of about 37,000 residents.

Beck, a retired clinical psychologist and member of the class, eventually contacted the national office of Family Promise, which guided him through the process of establishing an affiliate. Churches responded enthusiastically to the project. “We’re told we put our organization together faster than any other,” he said.

At that point, Family Promise of Green County had 13 churches to host families a week at a time and another 13 congregations who provided additional volunteers. A day center in a house owned by one of churches provided a place to stow belongings, take showers and meet with caseworkers.

The annual budget of $110,000 is raised through grants, fundraisers and donations from churches and local businesses and groups, including United Way and the county board.

Green County had served 17 families as of mid-August, who stayed in the network an average of 89 nights. The graduation rate to independence is 69 percent. “Most of our referrals came through the economic assistance unit,” Beck said. “Many of them would be in what we call near homeless conditions, where they were being evicted for failure to pay rent.”

His Monroe congregation has always been mission oriented and the pastor, the Rev. Randy Booth, serves on the local Family Promise board.  “My view is that is it has energized a portion of the church,” Beck added. “It’s certainly made the whole homeless issue much more visible. Many are choosing to get involved whenever it’s our turn to host.”

Playing host in Georgia

McInnis leads the 8-year-old of Church of the Way in Lawrenceville, Ga., which meets at a high school but partners with the smaller New Hope United Methodist Church to provide space for homeless families several times a year through Family Promise of Gwinnett County Inc.

During a hosting week, the families spend their time at the day center, their jobs or schools before arriving at the church between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Volunteers can drop off food, serve a hot meal or interact during fellowship time where “people can just kind of hang out, play with the kids, get to know people,” he said.

The key is helping sustain family relationships in a setting where they can be comfortable. “In a shelter, if you’ve got a mom and her 16-year-old son in the program…they’re going to be split up,” McInnis explained.

Family Promise space is set up so “that family’s in a room together. It gives them some dignity. We put in nightstands and beds and lamps and try to make it as homey as possible in those rooms.” At the end of the week, the furniture is packed up and moved by truck to the next host church.

In the program’s early days of 2005-2006, most of families were headed by single moms, but the faltering U.S. economy has brought more couples with children. “It’s opened our eyes to the needs in our community,” McInnis said. “We live in a fairly affluent community and sometimes we want to ignore that there’s that kind of need…that our kids are sitting next to kids in their classrooms who are homeless.”

Affordable housing shortage remains

Olson, who oversees a staff of 14 at the national office in New Jersey, said the core issue of homelessness — poverty — has not changed as the gap between income and affordable housing continues.

Family Promise Facts

Many families served are working poor who fall into homelessness.
Serves over a half million people, 60 percent of whom are children.
Nationwide, 75 percent of families find housing within nine weeks.
For every $1 raised, another $3 is donated in goods and services.
Each affiliate is responsible for own fundraising.

For every three families looking for housing in the United States, only one affordable unit is available. “Until we solve that, families are always at risk for homelessness.”

Hostetler has “worn many hats” for Family Promise over the past 12 years as she has assisted with affiliates in Ohio, South Carolina, Maryland and Indiana.

She is helping to develop an affiliate in Indiana’s Hendricks County, with the goal of opening in early January. Their research already has found 118 homeless children in one of the county’s school districts. “It’s difficult to get accurate numbers…because families tend to stay under the radar.”

For Hostetler, the basic requirements of Family Promise volunteers — listening, showing compassion, sharing a meal — coincide with what it means to be Methodist. “As far back as I can remember, I was taught that it was important to reach out and to help others,” she said.

She also appreciates how a network composed of many faiths and congregations can work toward goals to solve homelessness. “Once you become involved with Family Promise, you readily find out how much blessing you receive,” Hostetler said.

What you can do

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or [email protected].

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