'Family' support is key to aftercare
By Mary Stamp
With roots in a small community and a supportive family, Susan Heitstuman knows the importance of community and family in her own life.
Bringing that background to her work as aftercare coordinator at Family Promise, she encourages families as they move from homelessness to shelters to housing.
Susan officially supports families for two years after they are in permanent housing. Even when they call after that time, she listens and invites them to consider the pros and cons of options and points them to resources—as her mother did for her.
"We want families to feel cared for, loved and not judged," she pointed out.
Susan, one of the longest serving staff members, was a volunteer since Family Promise/Interfaith Hospitality Network started.
When Susan was administrative staff at Spokane Valley United Methodist Church (UMC) in 1996, she received a call from organizers wanting to start a branch of the national Interfaith Hospitality Network, which was founded in 1986.
Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN), the original name for Family Promise, officially started in March 1997 in Spokane with 11 churches.
The program has grown so in 2021 it served 4,000 people in 700 families, including helping 3,500 with rental assistance to prevent homelessness.
Twenty-five years ago, host churches first opened their buildings to shelter four homeless families for a week at a time. Volunteers from support churches would bring meals and converse with families at the host churches.
Spokane Valley UMC served as a support church for St. Mary's Catholic Church, which was a host church.
Susan also volunteered with her church, St. Anthony's Catholic, a support church, which helped St. Joseph's Catholic Church on Dean, a host church.
Families would arrive at a host church at 5 p.m., after spending their day at the day center, connecting with case workers to look for jobs, gain skills, do laundry and find resources to secure permanent housing.
As a volunteer until 2008, Susan slept in churches, made dinners, conversed with families and drove vans.
Before COVID, IHN had grown to 31 churches—12 host and 19 support congregations—with 50 volunteers a week.
Madelyn Bafus, whom Susan knew from Spokane Valley UMC, began working as a caseworker with Interfaith Hospitality in 2006. When she became executive director in 2008, she hired Susan as office manager.
Steve Allen became executive director in 2013.
Joe Ader came on in 2016 as program director and became executive director in March 2019.
Over the years, IHN offices and day centers for people sheltered in churches moved from E. Second Ave. to E. Indiana, E. Sprague and then to Richard Allen Apartments.
In 2003, the national organization renamed itself Family Promise. Spokane adopted that name in 2012. The program in churches, which served 15 families a year, is still called the Interfaith Hospitality Network.
In 2014, Family Promise purchased a building at 904 E. Hartson for the administrative offices and day center.
In 2016, the City of Spokane asked Family Promise to open a 24/7 walk-in emergency shelter for families. Open Doors opened in Emmanuel Family Life Center with meals, showers, kitchen access and case management.
As its capacity to serve homeless families tripled, Family Promise began its Neighbors Prevention program and the Village aftercare program, hiring staff and looking to buy a building for Open Doors.
In 2019, they bought the former Cassano's Italian Grocery Store at 2002 E. Mission, renovating it for the Open Doors emergency shelter and opening that September with 20 families.
Now Family Promise programs operate in six locations, named by their function—Emergency Family Shelter, Infant House, Healing House, Special Needs House, Cheney Center, and Housing Assistance and Administrative Center. The church shelter program, or Bridges, that temporarily closed in COVID is now the Rotational Shelter. It is set to reopen in 2023.
Family Promise now has 50 employees who raise funds, oversee the buildings and programs, and do the case management.
Since September 2019, 420 families have moved to permanent housing. Each of the 50 families in aftercare is different, so Susan's work is never the same. Some families need more help than others.
Growing up in a family of six on a farm in the Walla Walla Valley town of Lowden, Susan told of support from her large extended family. Her father was German Catholic and her mother was Irish-Scottish Catholic. Eventually, her parents sold their farm and moved closer to Walla Walla.
Susan came to Spokane in 1982 and studied three years at Gonzaga. She was a health club receptionist before finishing her degree in education in 1991 at Eastern Washington University. After teaching for a year, she decided that wasn't for her, so she began at Spokane Valley UMC and then was full-time administrative staff with IHN.
As the one who answered the phone, it was a good day if she did not have to turn people away. She knew homeless families were undercounted.
"We have not had to turn a family away since Dec. 4, 2021, the longest time we have gone without doing that," Joe said. "Our preventative work and rental assistance are slowing the flow of families needing the shelter."
When the low-barrier 24/7 emergency shelter opened at Emmanuel Family Life Center, it was at capacity right away.
"The church rotational program is high barrier. We have to be selective to retain churches that relied on volunteers, so families staying in churches had to be cooperative," Susan said.
"There was a big change in 2019, when we purchased our own building before COVID hit," she said.
Susan then shifted from overseeing the rotational program in churches to being aftercare program manager.
"Aftercare is where my heart is, because I kept in contact with families after they found permanent housing," Susan said.
"After leaving the shelter, many struggle again or face challenges," she said. "Moving into permanent housing does not solve all of their issues. They still need support.
"We tell families we are their family. They can always call us to talk or find resources," she said. "When they are stuck, I'm here to help them problem-solve so they don't lose their housing if their car breaks down or they are between jobs. I can suggest resources. The fix may be simple.
"We support them as church members support each other in times of crisis," said Susan, who some clients call "Mom."
"Like my Mom, I say, 'Ok, here are the pros and cons. What are the best resources? You have to keep trying.' Families need hope. My biggest job is to be a cheerleader and encourage them," she said.
She doesn't tell them what to do. She offers options and lets them decide as adults.
"We are family. Family helps family," she said, "but I want them to have power to move from fear and walk on to reduce their chance of being homeless again.
"Always and never are not in my vocabulary," Susan said. "Life can happen, but the resources and connections they gain as they become part of the community increase their chance of succeeding."
In Susan's hometown, if someone was struggling, neighbors helped. They would paint the church, bring casseroles and raise money. In a small town, there's no hiding. One neighbor tells another, and people help.
In an extended family, too, everyone helps each other.
When families move into a house, Family Promise provides furniture, household goods, toilet paper and paper towels that have been donated and are now stored at the new administrative offices.
"We are not just responsible for ourselves but also need to give back to our community. Family Promise for me is being part of a big extended family," she said.
For information, call 723-4663 or visit familypromiseofspokane.org.
New locations serve homeless families
Joe Ader, in listing the locations and programs of Family Promise of Spokane, pointed out that the focus on homeless people downtown overlooks the reality that the largest and growing group of homeless people are children and families.
He came to Spokane in 2016 to implement ideas on ending poverty. Through Family Promise, he has seen results.
The locations are:
• In January 2022, Family Promise rented a mobile home in Cheney so children in three families can attend school there.
• In October 2021, they opened the Housing Assistance Center and Administrative Offices at 2322 E. Sprague, where they offer aftercare and provide rental and utility assistance.
• In September 2019, they opened the Emergency Family Shelter at 2002 E. Mission to shelter 79 people a night on mats on the floor and serve as the day center, too. By June, basement renovations will be done, adding case management offices and space for 20 more people. Families stay an average of 67 days.
• They bought the house next door on Mission to use as the Special Needs House for three families who have a child or an adult with a disability.
• Hartson was named the Healing House in 2020, when it became the COVID isolation center, along with three RVs loaned for that purpose. When it's no longer needed for isolation, it will house up to 20 people in five families who have a member just out of the hospital or with a medical condition.
• In July 2021, the Family Infant House at 227 E. Mission opened for five families with newborns to six months. Joe said infants under one are the largest single age group they serve.
• Along with rental assistance, Family Promise is increasing case management, identifying families qualified for subsidized housing and engaging in "diversion-guided conversations to help families identify resources to prevent them from needing emergency shelter," Joe said.
For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.