This group teaches families the skills they need to get on their feet
By Terry Kaufman
The homeless are a constant presence in our community. We read stories of riverside encampments and we pass panhandlers on our way to pick up our daily lattes. What we don’t often read about are the homeless families in our midst who are trying against all odds to rebuild their lives. Fortunately, a dedicated cadre of 28 local religious congregations has not forgotten these families.
Under the auspices of Family Promise, a nonprofit organization currently housed on the campus of Loaves & Fishes, homeless families are reintegrated into the community. Over the past seven years, 120 families have gotten back on their feet and put a roof over their heads as a result of Family Promise and the hundreds of church and synagogue volunteers who work tirelessly to make their lives better.
“We get about 10 intakes a day,” says Marsha Spell, Family Promise’s executive director. “The number has tripled since I came here three years ago.” Spell says that 11,700 children in the Sacramento school district are homeless; that number was 7,000 when she took the reins. She points to the economic downturn and recent announcements of closings at Comcast and Campbell’s Soup. “I don’t think people realize the magnitude of homeless families. It’s the number one growing segment of homeless,” she says. “There is absolutely nowhere for them to go.”
The program accepts only four families at a time. The families are housed overnight at congregations, in one-week rotations, where they are fed breakfast and dinner. When not at work or school, they are at the Family Promise center working on setting goals, learning skills and mapping a path to success. A part-time case manager helps each family identify their needs, write them down and plan the means of accomplishment. The needs can be as simple as getting new brakes for a car or immunizations for the children, but each family is held accountable for achieving them. “We work with them on a weekly basis to get the monkey off their backs,” says Spell. “When they’re held accountable, it’s very powerful. Each day that they get something done, they feel accomplished.”
The goal for each family is to be able to move into their own housing in two to three months. Spell says she gives first priority to families with the best chance of transitioning in eight weeks—such as those who are working but staying in motels—because that allows her to help more people. Families with a disability take longer to transition because of the dearth of appropriate housing. “When one family leaves, I call families on my waiting list, but many don’t return my call.”
The reason, she says, is that some families cannot deal with the structure of the program. “They have to be up each morning by 6, here at 7 and back at 4 in order to do their chores unless they’re working,” she explains. “They leave at 5 to go to their host congregations, and they can’t leave until the next morning.” Of the money that they earn from outside work, they are required to save 70 percent to cover deposits and other expenses that await them when they move out on their own. Spell, who commutes an hour each way and is on-site from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, describes herself as a “drill sergeant with a heart.” She says, “I’ve gotta lay down the law, but I do it with love and kindness.”
The Family Promise facilities are spartan. There is a shower, a reading area, a washer and dryer, and a big table for working on daily and weekly goals. Although rent is free, the cost of running the program, including insurance, fuel for the van and the case manager’s salary, is $15,000 a month for four families. “We get no federal or state money,” says Spell. “We’re entirely dependent on private donations.” A fundraising program that she recently launched, based on her two decades as executive director of a hospice organization, uses Family Promise volunteers to manage estate sales. The nonprofit retains 35 percent of the proceeds, far less than the typical 50 percent taken by professional estate sale managers. “I’d like to open a store, like we did for the hospice, to sell any items not disposed of in the estate sales,” says Spell. “We could train our families to work in the store, setting up displays, operating the cash register, driving trucks. A lot of these people are lacking skills and a work history.”
Spell says that sometimes it seems daunting to her. “I ask myself, ‘Am I making a difference with these people?’” But then she looks at the results: 189 adults and 333 children who have moved out of homelessness. “That’s a lot if you really think about it.”
The host and support congregations are the backbone of Family Promise. “They’re the moms and dads for these families,” says Spell. “Without them, we couldn’t keep our promise.”
For more information about Family Promise, go to sacfamilypromise.org.