Roberta Joseph, 42, sits with her 17-month-old daughter, Evelyn, in the safety of the Family Promise Day Center on Fourth Street in Aberdeen.
They are among the growing number of homeless families across the nation — and the kind of people this nonprofit’s corps of volunteers, committed board members and community partners are helping every day.
Charles Scamman, director of Family Promise of Grays Harbor, said the river camp in Aberdeen and the camps in Olympia and Seattle are highly visible and therefore are the first images to come to mind when someone thinks of homelessness — but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
There is a quickly growing segment of the homeless population that isn’t as visible, he said. “Over 80% of homeless families include a single mom, and we are able to help out with that.”
Family Promise is a national program that uses community-based efforts to get families out of the cycle of homelessness. Karen Olson started the group in 1986 in her own New Jersey community, where she developed a network of existing community resources and volunteers to give families the tools they needed to become self-sufficient.
Within a few years, the network went national. There are now about 200 affiliates across the country, including six in Washington.
The national framework provides a solid base, allowing each affiliate some leeway to customize the program to meet local needs.
“The nice part of being part of a national organization is we didn’t have to invent the wheel,” said Phil MacNealy, board president of Family Promise Grays Harbor. “We have a good deal of autonomy to do what works best in this community.”
One woman’s journey
Joseph grew up with addiction all around her. Her drug was meth. But when she found out she was pregnant with Evelyn, she changed her ways. She had already lost an infant daughter in 2011; a blue teardrop tattooed under her left eye is a reminder. She has been clean and sober for two years.
“She is my little lifeline,” she said as Evelyn, with her bright blue eyes and curly red hair, explored the space in the day room. “She’s my life-saver. I’m trying to do the right thing for my child.”
She left California for Washington to stay with a family member, who had his own meth addiction. “That didn’t work out,” said Joseph. So she packed up and went to stay with relatives in Florida, only to find herself in a similar situation.
She would make cross-country journeys several times over two years, trying to find a stable living environment to raise her daughter. But at every turn, she found herself surrounded by people living the lifestyle she strove to put behind her.
Finally, back in Washington, a friend told her about Family Promise. She’s been there about three months.
“I have a safe and secure place for me and my daughter,” said Joseph. “I have day care for my daughter, I got a job, and I’m working on saving to get a place of my own.”
“You have to come in here with a plan,” said Family Promise case manager Curtis Steinhauer. “Roberta was here maybe two days and got herself set up with the services she needed. She probably applied for 30, 40 jobs.”
Within a few months, she was employed.
Small scale, big results
The Grays Harbor program hosts only four families at a time, or a total of 14 people. This ensures all will receive the volunteers’ full attention.
“Being limited in scope makes it doable,” said MacNealy. “We’d rather be limited and have success than expand beyond our capabilities.”
Families are referred there primarily by the Coastal Community Action Program, but may also be referred by clergy, school officials and even individual community members, as was the case with Joseph.
To enter the program, families must meet certain requirements.
“Once they’re referred there’s a vetting process, including background checks,” said Scamman. “There have to be kids in the picture. We need to make sure it is safe for them to be here, and require they abstain not just from illegal drugs, but also alcohol and marijuana, even if it’s legal for them to use it.”
The program relies heavily on volunteers to make it work. While these volunteers are trained to do their jobs, they are not necessarily equipped to handle domestic violence; so families involved in such situations are not accepted into the program.
“If the family is cleared and there are no other issues, we can enroll them right away,” said Scamman.
That’s what happened with Joseph. “I came in for an interview, got approved and moved in on a Sunday,” she said. “They gave us a room, clothes, food and bus passes so I could get done what I needed for support.”
Each client family must commit to the program and its conditions, and work toward the ultimate goal of securing housing of their own.
“We can offer advice and support,” said Steinhauer, but each family must do the work in order for the program to work.
As long as they are actively working toward their goals, there is no set time limit for a family’s time in the program. And after “graduation,” MacNealy said the program continues to reach out to those families to make sure they have what they need to keep them from becoming homeless again.
The Day Center
A key part of getting the local program fully operational was finding a safe place where participants could spend the day getting the services and assistance they needed. It took two years to find the right spot; but once the Day Center was open, MacNealy and others had set the table with most of what the program needed to take off full steam.
“This used to be the Grays Harbor Youth Center,” said MacNealy, sitting in the office of the organization’s Day Center, located on the ground floor of the Amazing Grace Lutheran Church on Fourth Street in Aberdeen. “When they closed, Amazing Grace offered us the use of this space.”
He continued: “It has so many pluses — with more than 3,000 square feet, we even have room to grow if needed.” It’s also close to services like CCAP and others that play integral roles in the program.
“We welcomed our first family in the beginning of March,” said MacNealy.
“In the second week we added another family, and in the third week another, then a fourth family,” said Scamman.
The first family has since “moved to their own place, the parents are employed, and the kids and the mom are enrolled in school,” said Scamman.
Another family graduated in mid-June, a single mom with a teenage son, said Steinhauer — a common theme for homeless families. A third family graduated later in June. And, as each family graduates into its own housing, others are brought in.
Once in the program, families are transported to one of nine host churches with their bedding and other essential items. They are provided with dinner and stay the nights at that church for a week at a time, rotating to another partner church every week.
Each morning, the families are transported to the Day Center. Each family has its own room there with storage for items like additional clothes, toys and daily needs.
“The families treat the Day Center as a home base,” said MacNealy. “When they move (from one host church to another), we take the people and their bedding to the new location.”
Throughout the process, the Day Center serves as a permanent address for participating families — a requirement for identification cards, employment and more.
It has bathrooms, showers, a laundry facility and a family room of sorts — a communal space with a television and seating. The families share a full kitchen, stocked with food donated mostly by local churches. And in the computer room, adults can conduct job searches and access a variety of services.
Families also receive case management and other guidance to help them into a place of their own — everything from parenting classes to resume preparation.
Making it work
Amazing Grace and nine other local churches are partnering with Family Promise for overnight stays: in Aberdeen, the Glory Center, United Christian Church, First United Methodist Church, First Presbyterian Church and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church; in Hoquiam, Our Lady of Good Hope Catholic Church; in Central Park, Four Square Church; and in Montesano, the Presbyterian Church and Montesano Church of God.
The program is seeking more hosts to provide overnight accommodations, with a goal of 14.
The program itself is non-denominational, said Scamman: Volunteers come from all denominations, all political points of view and all walks of life.
“There is so much discussion on the topic of homelessness, so many different opinions and some very extreme views that clash,” he said. “The big part of the attraction of Family Promise is the chance to be a part of the solution. If people see something that is actually working, they are more likely to get involved.”
Funding for Family Promise comes from three primary sources: individual contributions, fundraising activities and grants. More than anything, MacNealy said it’s the volunteers who make the wheels turn and get families into their own stable living situations.
It takes 200 or so to make it work, he said. There’s always a need for more — particularly people willing to spend the night with families at the churches, he said, but also those who can provide assistance with meals, job searches, and teaching life and parenting skills.
“We can’t run without community support,” said MacNealy. “People want to help, and we can provide the framework.”
Anyone interested in helping out may call 360-986-3944 to set up a one-on-one volunteer training session with Steinhauer. These take roughly half an hour.
Family Promise also conducts occasional group training sessions, which last a little more than an hour. The next one is scheduled for July 18 at 6:30 p.m. at the Montesano Church of God.
Keep up with the organization’s efforts at FamilyPromiseOfGraysHarbor.org or on Facebook.