For Good: Family Promise works with interfaith congregations to help homeless families

When Kimberly Darby and her husband Curtis moved back to Florida from Massachusetts with their 6-year-old son, the parents struggled to find fulltime employment, getting by with temporary and odd jobs. 

But the bills came in faster than the income and eventually they were evicted. Fortunately they were able to crash at Darby’s brother’s place, where he lived with his girlfriend and her two children. But the Darbys knew they couldn’t stay for very long in the living room, the only space that was available to them.  

The Darby family had a plan though. They would wait until availability was open at Family Promise of Pinellas County, an organization of interfaith congregations that helps homeless families get back on their feet. Kimberly Darby called every couple of days for three weeks until there was room for their family.

An affiliate of the National Family Promise Organization, a secular nonprofit that works in conjunction with the Interfaith Hospitality Network, Family Promise of Pinellas County is an organization in which faith-based groups volunteer in various ways to help support a rotating cast of four guest families while they’re transitioning from homelessness to a sustainable living situation. 

For one week at a time, one of the participating 14 host congregations sets up make-shift living quarters for the incoming families inside their houses of worship. The volunteers from the host congregations and eight support congregations take turns supplying the guests three meals a day, as well as helping in whatever ways are needed, including taking kids to school, donating needed items, or offering social and emotional support. 

Jennifer Sunshine, Executive Director of Family Promise, says the reason faith-based communities are a big part of the picture is that they have buildings that can house homeless families, and because the primary mission of faith-based organizations "is to work in the community to do good works, to help people. So you’re taking a group of people who are inclined to want to project with this kind of work who also have spaces, so it’s really a brilliant combination of community resources.”

What’s more, says Sunshine, interfaith organizations working together does a lot to build community. When a local synagogue and a Christian organization partner to host a guest family, both groups are excited to work together. 

“It’s inspiring, especially today when you turn on the news and you think everyone is in opposition to one another, when in fact, that’s really not the case, at least not here, not in our network of volunteers,” says Sunshine. “We bring people together to set the differences aside and focus on what’s important to help the community. ...People talk about it takes a village. We are the village.”

The resourceful advocates at Family Promise have secured a place where adults can go for free clothes, job interviews and new clothes for kids. They connect guests with GED training, credit and financial counseling, parenting classes, life skills classes and even find solutions in specialty situations, like when a seamstress made brassieres for a “well-endowed” woman who worked on her feet and needed really good physical support to avoid back pain but could not afford custom-made bras. 

During working hours, guest families go to the day center at the Family Promise office, an inviting, warm space donated by
“A lot of times you think about people being homeless because they choose to be, but in this case you just know that they’re not choosing to be homeless. It’s things that’ve come up. Some of the people are very successful people, but they’re just in a bad position right at the time and they just need the help.” -- Volunteer Virginia Maxfield
Central Christian Church. Four computers are available for guests to do job and home searches. There are two bathrooms with showers, laundry facilities, a living room space with DVDs and children’s books, and even large walk-in closets with locks -- a place the families currently in the program can keep their belongings. 

“One of the hardest things about being homeless and bouncing around is that you lose your stuff, and this is a safe secure place where they can keep it while they’re here,” says Sunshine. “They can keep their family photos and not lose them. It’s a big deal.”

Personalized attention for long-term success

Case worker Angela Wilson, who has worked with the homeless for 17 years as a social worker, says the combination of 950 volunteers making sure that the guest families’ basic needs are met, and the length of time families can spend in the program - up to 90 days - there is adequate time to focus on and try to remove barriers that may be contributing to each families homelessness. 

“I love that we work with four families at a time. It allows me to be more one-on-one with our families and focus on them individually,” says Wilson. 

Most families graduate within 80 to 85 days, meaning they have worked out child care, found gainful employment and sustainable housing, and they’ve learned how to budget. 

“Our goal and our push is sustainable housing when they graduate,” says Wilson, who stays in touch with graduated families as much as she can. “I want to make sure they stay ahead of any financial hiccups or medical hiccups. I just like to check in to see what the scenario is and I encourage them to call me any time something pops up or they have a  question or concern.”

Since opening in April 2015, Family Promise has graduated 17 families including 37 children. 

The guest experience

For the nearly two months, Kimberly Darby and her family were at Family Promise. She says it was very helpful having access to computers all day for job searches or looking into continuing education. The organization helped with getting their son situated with school and getting him to school everyday. She says when her husband got his job, they even packed him his lunch. 

“We never had to worry about what we were going to eat from day to day,” she says. 

Darby was also impressed by the unconventional accommodations. 

“You know what, every congregation we went to, they made it feel as comfortable and as homey as they possibly could. They were very welcoming, and they just made the atmosphere so it wasn’t awkward,” she says. 

Beyond the benefits during the program, Darby says that her family took away life skills for continued success. 

“We’ve definitely learned how to better budget our money. They’ve given us a lot of tools as far as implementing and trying to keep a daily routine so that it just benefits everybody in the household. I would say our communication within the home is different ... just how it’s so important to implement family time to the point where you have that time of day when you put down the phones and interact with each other.”

Darby also says that Family Promises was “a blessing” to her family from the very beginning. 

“Angela and Jennifer both at Family Promise just really embraced us,” she says. “They encouraged us. If we needed a listening ear we could go in there and cry it out, talk about whatever ... and one thing I really appreciated was that it always stayed in confidence ... and it didn’t stop with them. Even the different congregations would ask you if there was anything you needed personally, and if they could come together to get it or find a resource, they did it every time.”

To give is to receive

One of those volunteers is Virginia Maxfield, a member of Northside Baptist Church, one of the host congregations involved with Family Promise. Maxfield not only participates when her church is hosting the families, but also regularly works as an “Office Angel” in the Family Promise office where she answers the phones and conducts intake interviews for candidates who need help. 

“It’s just such a great thing because, you know, many of us from time to time could’ve been in that same position,” she says.

Maxfield says that helping these families has been rewarding for her. 

“Getting to talk to the people ... and also seeing the progression that they make in the few weeks time, from the time they come in to the time they graduate. It’s just remarkable,” she says. “And just to see that they’re so appreciative of everything that everybody is doing for them.”

After more than a year volunteering at Family Promise, Maxfield has also changed her way of looking at the homeless population.  

“I’ve learned to be more humble thinking about people that are homeless,” she says. “A lot of times you think about people being homeless because they choose to be, but in this case you just know that they’re not choosing to be homeless. It’s things that’ve come up. Some of the people are very successful people, but they’re just in a bad position right at the time and they just need the help.” 

Sunshine says that’s not unusual. She says she and Wilson hear from volunteers often who have been moved by the guest families. 

For Sunshine personally, the rewards of her work bring tears to her eyes.

“When the kids move into their new home and they get excited that they have their own bed -- and for a four-year-old to understand and comprehend what it means and the importance of having their own bed -- to watch a child excited to move into their home gets me every time. To watch people feel renewed hope. It’s magical,” she says.

Read more articles by Amy Beeman.

Amy Beeman is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.