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Four PNC churches help shelter homeless families

Four United Church of Christ churches—one in Spokane and three in Seattle—are involved with a national program housing homeless families in their buildings or serving as support churches for churches providing shelter.

Now known as Family Promise nationally—Spokane chose to keep its name, Interfaith Hospitality Spokane—the program mobilizes community resources and faith groups to provide temporary housing, meals, case management and compassion for newly homeless families as they seek stable housing.

In Spokane, Westminster Congregational UCC recently became a support church, cooking, providing hospitality and overnight volunteers, when the Spokane Friends Church hosts families in their building.  It is one of 30 Spokane churches involved in the Interfaith Hospitality Spokane.

Marj Johnston, associate pastor at Westminster, said they started last spring and have helped three times, rotating  volunteers from the women’s chapter and outreach board.  Some volunteers want to do this, but rarely attend worship.

“We serve three meals each week, play games and do crafts with the children, and one stays overnight,” she said. “Volunteers help transport people to the day center and do phoning or office work.

Interfaith transports cots in a trailer from church to church. 

“Volunteers sharing meals with families build relationships,” she said. “Families see the volunteers’ genuine concern.   Presence is a great way to start conversations.  It’s amazing what we can talk about over a wild card game.”

Although she worked three years with the Homeless Program of the Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs, Marj learned never to assume understanding homelessness.

“We continually learn, because we are dealing with real people with real lives and real dreams and hopes.  Our role is to accompany them to help them find the tools and resources to have the lives they want,” she said.

Seattle UCC churches—Alki, Admiral and Fauntleroy—are among 18 congregations cooperating to provide the services.  Temple Kol HaNeshamah, which meets at Alki UCC, supports that church.

Alki Women

Women prepare air beds at Alki UCC.

Alki UCC, Kol HaNeshamah and Admiral UCC cooperate to assist families for one week every three months to both shelter and feed families in transition from homelessness to housing.

They provide physical sanctuary, transforming Alki UCC’s space to house families.  Classrooms become bedrooms and the fellowship hall becomes a family dining room and a children’s playroom. 

The synagogue and church members make these spaces homey with home-cooked meals and occasional art or recreational activities for guests.

Members of the congregations help prepare and serve meals, play with children and spend an overnight with the families.

The Kol HaNeshamah synagogue has found the shared ministry a way to be partners, sharing space and a vision for a more just world.

Julia Chase

Julia Chase helps prepare building for families.

Julia Chase of Alki said her church was the first one in West Seattle to vote “yes” to be a Family Promise  host church.

“It took three years to recruit enough host churches and to locate and furnish a day center.  The program has been going since July 2008,” she said.

During their vacation church school in the summer, children of Admiral Congregational UCC donated their “gently used” toys and games for children of Family Promise.  Lessons focused on sharing, giving, growing and loving.

“The children were moved to learn that some children have no toys and no home,” said the Family Promise website.

Family Promise can help up to 14 people at a time.  Guests are interviewed and screened by the director and agree to follow guidelines, including developing a personal plan of action.  People with psychiatric, medical, legal or substance abuse problems are not accepted.  They are referred to other programs.

Each site houses and feeds guest families one week every three months, providing sleeping space and using Family Promise’s inflatable beds.

During the day, families are transported to the day center where staff help them find living arrangements and jobs.

Sally O’Brien, who has served on the Alki outreach committee, was one of the founders of Family Promise of Seattle and serves on its fund-raising committee.

“Several years ago, our committee was burned out,” she said.  “We were trying to do too much, and spread our resources thin until we decided to focus on one area.  We chose homelessness, because Seattle adopted a 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness.”

In 2005, they joined with others interested in starting an Interfaith Hospitality Network—the former national name of Family Promise—in West Seattle.

“While many people were willing to give a check, we realized it would take people power to develop,” Sally said.

Three years later in July 2008, the nonprofit formed.  Alki was the first church in the network, along with Kol HaNeshamah.

“At Alki, we value working with Kol HaNeshamah.  Our cooperation on this has brought us closer,” she said.

Sally’s husband, Michael, and 14-year-old daughter, Hannah, have joined her for overnights.

“The first night, there was someone Hannah’s age,” Sally said.

Hannah was quiet when they went home. Sally asked what was wrong.

“I’m mad,” Hannah told her.  “That girl is no different than me.  Why does it happen.  This is a rich nation.  Why can’t it work for everyone?  It’s not fair!”

Beyond recognizing the injustice, she felt good she could help the family and has gone more times.

“We could just greet guests, but we also make dinner, play games and stay overnight,” Sally said.

The Family Promise board is still recruiting host churches to expand the network.

“As my first experience working with a nonprofit board, it was rewarding,” Sally said.  “It’s great to see how people come forward and move out of inertia to do something.”

Some churches she invited to be a host or support church turned down the opportunity after learning they could not invite the families to worship or Bible study.  Family Promise does not allow proselytizing.

On faith, Sally believes “actions speak louder than words” as the program helps stabilize children and bears witness to systemic problems.

“It’s one small way I can make a difference,” she said, “and it reminds me not to take things for granted in my life.”

Because the program is underway now when funding is limited and needs are great, Sally said Family Promise of Seattle is using a national fund raising idea.  They formed a 206 Club—using their area code—and ask people to donate $206 a year, or $17.17 a month.  Grants that were $2,000 are now $500.  The program was also hit because four months after a major fund raiser, the economy fell, and some could not fulfill the pledges.

As of mid-November, Family Promise of Seattle had helped 20 families with 50 children find sustainable housing—100 percent of those who went through the program.

Marilynn Miller of Admiral UCC said the program started because there were no shelters to keep families together. 

Admiral is a support congregation when families are six blocks away at Alki, which she attended for 30 years before going to Admiral. 

“We help set up the aero-beds Sunday evening and take them down the next Sunday morning,” she said. “The churches provide mattress pads and sheets, which members take home after church to launder.”

Children go to school, and adults and pre-school children go to a day center, where there are computers for job and house hunting, a counselor/caseworker to help people find jobs and housing, and child care so parents can go out for interviews.

“Some find housing in two weeks,” said Marilynn, a retired teacher who first heard of the program five years ago.

With the Admiral building used by many 12-step programs, they could not house families, but could cook meals.

“After World War II, my family tried to stay together when we moved to Texas.  We moved around and lived in different places, so I understand how hard it is to keep families together,” she said.

Marilynn added that after leaving the program, families who have met in it continue to network with each other, helping babysit or store furniture.

Fauntleroy, a 300-member church, does the program on its own.  Lucy and Terry Gaddis, coordinators, host guests in their building, which they share with the YMCA.  The Y has a gym, laundry, exercise room, showers and child care.

Along with hosting, the church provides the 30 volunteers a support church would send.  Fauntleroy hosted five times last year and hosted when it was Our Lady of Guadeloupe’s turn as a support church.

Fauntleroy was also one of the first involved in Family Promise of Seattle.  One church member, David Jones, is chair of the Family Promise board.

Although the Gaddises lived in the Seattle area since the 1970s, they did not attend church until they were drawn to Fauntleroy by its social justice action, especially on poverty.

“Doing Family Promise is doing something about homelessness, not just giving money.  We can also give our time and food,” said Lucy who serves on the Outreach Committee.

Terry is retired from Boeing, and she is retired from work as the city budget analyst.

Family Promise now has 150 programs around the country.

For information, call Elizabeth Heath, Family Promise of Seattle director, at 206 937-1703 or Madelyn Bafus at Interfaith Hospitality Spokane at 509-747-5487.


Copyright Pacific Northwest Conference News © December 2009


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