Family Promise helps families stay housed
By Mary Stamp
Operating as "Family Promise" for seven years, the nonprofit continues the essence of its original name, Interfaith Hospitality, as key to establishing the relationships and community needed to help families stay housed.
Joe Ader, executive director since 2019, came to Spokane in 2016 to do anti-poverty training and soon opened Family Promise's Emergency Family Walk-In Shelter, Open Doors, in Emmanuel Family Life Center.
When Interfaith Hospitality started in 1997, families were housed by a network of 13 host churches, assisted by 20 support congregations providing meals and conversation. They helped three families at a time. They stayed in a church one week and moved to another the next week.
"The congregations were Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Jewish, Friends, Methodist, Unitarian, Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, United Church of Christ and more," Joe said, noting that the church program continued until COVID.
After opening Open Doors in 2016, they were able to serve 25 families at a time.
At the day center then and now, case workers help people find jobs, education and housing. They continue to support families up to two years to keep them housed.
In 2018, Family Promise opened its Prevention Program to offer rental assistance to keep families in their housing. It provided $120,000 from federal grants a year before COVID. In 2021, it provided $4.2 million in rental assistance in Spokane, and $2.4 million in 2022, and $1.5 million for 2023.
"We helped stabilize 2,000 people in families at risk," Joe said, noting that large federal grants are now gone, but there are still city and county grants. "After 2023, it's anybody's guess as the program winds down, while housing costs continue to rise. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,600, up 30 percent from $1,200."
Only 49 percent of first-time home buyers can find housing they can afford, he added. About 51 percent face inflationary pressure as they continue renting. In 2022, Spokane's housing vacancy rate was 1.8 percent, putting those financially on the edge at greater risk of eviction and homelessness.
In response, Family Promise is increasing emphasis on its Stabilization Program. From January 2022 to June 2023, it rehoused 49 percent—285 people—of the homeless people rehoused out of any local shelter, Joe said.
Family Promise has five locations.
• The Emergency Family Shelter at 2002 E. Mission serves 79 people/day for up to 61 days. People sleep on six-inch high mats on the floor because they have many children under three who might fall out of bed. The mats are stacked during the day.
• The Family Infant House at 227 E. Mission serves up to 20 people in five families.
• The Mission House beside the family shelter is for three families—up to 12 people—with a member who has special needs.
• The Healing House at the former Hartson office building has space for up to 16 people in four families who have a member leaving a hospital after medical care. The Housing Assistance Center and Administrative Offices are now at 2322 E. Sprague.
• Soon Family Promise will open the first shelter in Spokane Valley at Flora and Main to house up to four—eventually six—families. It is designed for families to be rehoused within 72 hours through the Fast-Leasing and Sustainable Housing (FLASH)Program. The program is supported by a grant from the City of Spokane Valley.
School case managers will identify children at risk and try to prevent them from becoming homeless. Those who become homeless will enter a rapid rehousing program offered through partnerships with local landlords.
Family Promise will remove barriers by helping pay rents and deposits, offering case management to tenants and landlords, and identifying families needing extra help. Families in the Valley shelter for more than three days will move to the emergency shelter.
Now Family Promise seeks to involve congregations three ways.
First, after families are in housing, they need community.
"Loss of community is the main cause of homelessness," he said. "If someone has a community, they have someone to stay with."
Building community helps prevent a family from being homeless again, said Joe. They can build relationships and community to be friends that the newly housed people can go to.
Several years ago, a mother, father, three boys and a baby on the way came to Family Promise. The mother and three boys came right in, but the dad sat in the car, ready to leave because he was ashamed. Finally, he entered, and Family Promise helped him find housing and community. He began attending the Rock Church, connected with people and became a believer. The church became the family's community.
After an extensive search, the family moved into affordable housing a day before school. The baby was born the next week. Then the father, who had found work, noticed vision problems.
His doctor diagnosed a brain tumor and referred him to specialists in Seattle. Who would care for the children or pay for the hotel? How would they get there? The church took care of everything through the crisis. The tumor shrank, and he returned to work.
"Without the church, they might have been homeless again," Joe said.
A second role for churches is to address the "perception problem" related to homelessness, he added.
"Most think someone homeless is a man with a beard on a street corner or in a tent, but 36 percent of homeless people nationwide are families with children," he said. "The largest group we serve are babies. We served 35 newborns in 2022. Few think of babies as homeless, and few see families on the street. Many sleep in cars or motels, out of sight.
"Christians worship a God born as a homeless child, so we shouldn't be surprised," Joe said.
With 3,000 homeless K-12 students in the county, that's one in every classroom of 25.
Another misconception is that homeless people don't work, but 50 percent of adults in the shelter are working. They just don't earn enough working to make ends meet, he said.
"People in congregations learn about homelessness and tell others," said Joe. "The community needs to be educated on homelessness so we can create the right solutions for ending it."
Family Promise has two "On the Corner of Homelessness" podcasts at familypromiseofspokane.org. One is about the history of homelessness and the other is on affordable housing. Others are planned.
A third way churches are involved is through volunteers doing service projects, such as preparing welcome home kits that include pots and pans, toilet paper and plungers. The idea came from a former guest, who had to take a bus at 1:30 a.m. to Walmart to buy a plunger. Items for the kits cost $50.
Congregations send volunteers and groups to paint walls, upgrade facilities, lead children's programs, offer movie nights, sponsor dinners or parties, and invite families to events.
Before COVID, 40 congregations were involved. There are now about 25. To rebuild congregational participation, Family Promise has hired Shawn Ewart as congregation coordinator.
Joe observed that many in the younger generation focus on faith in action, the reverse of previous generations, who came to church, studied the Bible and became involved in the community as a result. Young people engage in mission and find a church or not, said Joe, who attends the Rock Church in the Spokane Valley.
He was first introduced to church when in junior high a cute girl invited him to church. The next week, he went to a youth camp at an inner-city hotel with homeless people. That opened his eyes to poverty and began his faith journey to end poverty.
After graduating in 1999 from Baylor University with majors in religion and political science, he worked with an international company and then moved to the Dallas area for more affordable housing. He joined a megachurch and became mission pastor. His experience with mission teams convinced him that those doing missions need to understand the communities they are serving.
He has developed "Understanding Poverty" training for churches, schools, nonprofits and corporations.
"Faith is why I do this," Joe said, repeating, "I worship a God born as a homeless child who, if he was born in Spokane today, would be in a Family Promise shelter. So, I see promise in children in the shelter, knowing that our intervention can help them contribute to the community as adults," he said.
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