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Thirty-four churches help house homeless families

From an East Sprague store that once sold wedding gowns and formals, the Interfaith Hospitality Network seeks to mend lives of homeless people—stitching them together with the aid of churches opening doors to house families for one week every 12 weeks.

Families move from church to church until they find permanent housing.

Stephenson

Larry Stephenson

The network now has 11 hosting churches—but 12 are needed—and 23 supporting churches that cluster around a host church to provide volunteers, resources, food and other services.

It accommodates a few families at a time—a maximum of four families or a total of 14 people, the number who can fit in a 15-passenger van with the driver—making a difference in their lives as well as the lives of people in host and support churches.

In late September, the network, which was founded in 1997, held an open house in its new day center and office at 2515 E. Sprague, which has more space than its former locations, a house at 517 E. Indiana and an office at Covenant Church, 212 S. Division.

In August 2004, Larry Stephenson, who grew up in Wallace, Idaho, moved from Seattle to be near his parents in Rathdrum and succeeded T.J. Sather as director.

Completing a master’s degree in social work at the University of Washington while in the Navy from 1976 to 1994, he was a drug and alcohol counselor and then worked with foster families through the state.

Today, with extended families far away, he knows most homeless families lack connections to provide the support his family provided when his mother needed medical care. He lived for a year with an aunt and uncle.

“Interfaith Hospitality turns the clock back, providing an extended family and neighborly care through congregations seeking to create community,” said Larry, who grew up Episcopalan, was nurtured by Navy chaplains and now attends different churches, at home or on weekend motorcycle trips with his wife. 

“I appreciate the broad community of faith,” he said.

Families enter the day center from a parking lot on the side of the building.  Offices are in the storefront.  Two small apartments upstairs are being renovated. There is space for an outdoor play area for children.

The location is on a bus route and within walking distance of the Spokane Neighborhood Action Program and services at the East Central Community Center.

“Because we rely on volunteers, we screen families for domestic violence, mental health issues and drug abuse,” Larry said.  “They must have basic stability so volunteers and churches are not at risk.  Social service agencies referring families do preliminary screening, including a criminal background check.”

Dominican Sister Patty Beattie, caseworker, interviews new families to identify needs and evaluate whether the network can address their issues safely and effectively.

“Moving every week is disruptive, so we evaluate whether they can handle it,” Larry said. 

Families change churches on Sunday afternoons.  By 6 p.m., they have a home-cooked meal, followed by time for children to do homework or participate in games and activities. 

By 9:30 p.m., children are in bed, and at 10:30 p.m., adults go to bed.  They wake up at 6 a.m., so there is time for breakfast and making lunches.  At 7 a.m., they come to the day center.  Children are transported so they continue attending the same school.

From the day center, parents make phone calls, do laundry and go out to search for housing, work, support and programs, or to attend classes.

Sister Patty helps them set goals, find permanent housing and access services.

With cuts in funding for the national housing voucher program, Larry said the network lengthened its maximum time frame for housing families from 40 to 60 days.

“With six to eight in a family, it’s hard to find affordable four-bedroom homes,” he said.

Host churches provide shelter and meals, setting up roll-away beds in Sunday-school rooms, and organizing volunteers to cook, serve meals and stay overnight with families. 

Supporting churches help with those tasks, with transportation and with providing volunteers to spend time with families.

Larry said Interfaith Hospitality is primarily an urban program, because so many people are needed to help.  He recently met with people in Coeur d’Alene and Lewiston interested in developing the program in their communities.

We need enough churches to share the load,” he said.

Families become homeless for many reasons, including loss of jobs and medical situations that tap all their resources so their utilities are shut off and they are evicted.  Once they have a poor credit rating, it becomes even harder to either rent or buy.

“The faith community’s influence is subtle—through role modeling parenting for young parents whose parents may not have provided a model,” Larry said.

“We model what to do, rather than saying, ‘Don’t do this.’  Church people know resources to help people find jobs or provide furniture when a family moves into an apartment or house.”

The only faith-related expectation is that families say grace before the evening meal. Karen Olson, who started the program in 1985 in New Jersey, established that tradition.

“Gratitude is a family value as well as a religious value,” said Larry, who has learned to trust “God will take care of things” along with volunteers and staff doing the legwork.

“If we mention a need for furniture, someone donates what we need to set up the families in their new homes,” he said.

Interfaith Hospitality is one of 122 Family Promise networks in 30 states, involving 95,000 volunteers and 3,000 congregations.

In Spokane, the host churches are Covenant United Methodist, Spokane Valley Baptist, Manito Presbyterian, Whitworth Presbyterian, Sacred Heart Catholic, St. Mary’s Catholic, Spokane Friends, North Hill Christian, St. Joseph Catholic, Prince of Peace Lutheran and Beautiful Savior Lutheran.

For information, call 747-5487 or email ihnspok@cet.com.

The Interfaith Hospitality Network is now Family Promise and is located on the campus of Richard Allen Enterprises in Spokane.


By Mary Stamp, Fig Tree editor - Copyright © November 2005