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Family Promise promotes housing stability

Cindy Wood reflects on 14 years with Family Promise.

By Kaye Hult

In 2008, when Cindy Wood moved to Coeur d'Alene from Bozeman, Mont., to be executive director of the newly formed Family Promise of North Idaho (FPNI), its goal was to do a good job of sheltering families with children.

"Now, it's about housing stability. Shelter is just one piece of that," said Cindy, who volunteered two years with Family Promise in Bozeman before coming to Idaho.

On March 31, the anniversary of her move, Cindy reflected on her 14 years at FBNI, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and other changes.

In its offices and day center on the lower level of St. Luke's Episcopal at Wallace and 5th, FPNI offers a safety net of food, shelter and support services for homeless children and families.

That safety net allows Family Promise guests to focus on finding work and affordable housing, knowing their families are safe while they deal with temporary difficulties. About 80 percent of families find housing.

"Things were tight in the housing crisis of 2008, when we opened," Cindy said. "They are tighter now. In some ways, going forward right now seems dismal, but people are finding ways."

The nonprofit provides a hospitality network of hosting and supporting congregations.  Host congregations provide temporary housing and meals to guest families on a weekly basis at no cost. 

With support and accommodations provided, parents can focus on rebuilding their lives. 

Family Promise of North Idaho offers counseling, job search assistance and other services at their professionally staffed day center with supplemental support by trained volunteers.

"Those who work with guests meet their needs with a spirit of warmth and compassion," Cindy said.

"At the beginning of COVID, it was harrowing when everything was shutting down," she recalled. "My plan B was that we could stay in the day center at the church. Then St. Luke's and other churches closed.

"We housed families in motels for two to four weeks at a time.  Volunteers dropped off meals. We worried about exposure to COVID and keeping volunteers and guest families safe. It was hard to connect families with resources."

One family was at the day center for a case management meeting when a realtor called saying, "I have 15 minutes to give in half an hour when I can offer a contactless meeting when no one else is in the office."

Key pick-up would be scheduled in a similar fashion. That stress was typical, Cindy said.

The national Family Promise in 2021 introduced FPNI to the Prevention Program for families given a three-day eviction notice.

"We called landlords and worked with families, asking how much money they could raise to avoid being evicted to prevent them from becoming homeless," she said.

Cindy said it reduced trauma and pressure for families from "the tyranny of the moment" when facing eviction.

"Families we have worked with in the Prevention Program have had better success gaining jobs and education," she said.

Shelter families continue with aftercare, working on goals for at least three months, meeting guidelines and having financial incentives when they graduate. Prevention families, with expanded case manager assistance, receive at least six months of aftercare, depending on the funding source.

"We returned to the rotation program with host and support congregations in June 2021," said Cindy, noting that national support increased efficiency.

Now a board led team is investigating expanding FPNI's reach by having a static site, along with using churches.

This model shortens the time families are sheltered by offering immediate incentives to reach goals, adding to the number of families that can be sheltered at one time, she said.

Cindy sees networking hosts and volunteers as "the secret sauce," because "for guests, there's a transformational component to walking through doors of a congregation, and being welcomed and embraced as worthy by those who don't even know them. Churches are a place of hospitality.

"Our hospitality gives a face to people rooting for guests," she said. "Guests experience generosity as people provide food. They know volunteers leave their own beds, come to be hosts and sleep in roll-away beds in the church just like them."

"Volunteers are a blessing. In the midst of FPNI's growing pains, they see needs and act on them. They offer ideas we may want to think about," she added.

One regular volunteer who helps with transportation ensures the FPNI vans are running. There are many opportunities for volunteers to use their skills.

Two volunteers told Cindy new mattresses were needed for the roll-away beds the families use. Mattresses had last been replaced in 2015.

Jill Dougherty procured $250 as seed money from Advent Lutheran Church in Spokane. She found other gifts from Coldwell Banker and from Dougherty and Associates CPAs.

Dan LaVine, a member of Trinity Lutheran, and co-owner of the Coeur d'Alene company, National Mattress and Furniture, thought they could purchase mattresses locally for less."

He had a thicker prototype made with extra padding in the middle. It was hypoallergenic, waterproof, easy to sanitize and had stronger stitching. They were less expensive and "made locally with love," Cindy said.

In March, they brought new mattresses to the church to bless.

Another Trinity Lutheran volunteer, Bob Rehnborg, checks the beds when Trinity hosts. He makes sure springs work, screws are in place and beds are rotated.

Charity Imagined, a resource agency in Coeur d'Alene, helps FPNI with major expenses for guests, such as replacing someone's dentures or financing dental work, services that help guests to move ahead with their goals.

Cindy quoted a Family Promise director who said, "People don't become homeless because of lack of money, but because of a lack of relationships. One of our goals is to help them rebuild a network of relationships."

Families gain strength through the network of congregations and businesses.

Cindy said she felt called to Family Promise North Idaho. 

"When the pandemic came, it all came to a head. Everything we'd been fighting for in providing help for families in crisis became active," she said. "I gained confidence over the years and was prepared for such a time as this.

"When I become discouraged, I remind myself that the best thing we can do is love our guests where they're at," she said. "Our goal is to provide the help people need without becoming so caught up in programs that we forget the power of love. The pandemic accentuated that. We couldn't do programs. All we had was love.

"It's incredible the opportunities that have come to our families," she said. "I believe it's by God's grace."

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, May, 2022