By Aaron Weaver
One night in January 2012, a point-in-time count identified 633,782 people experiencing homelessness. Put another way, 20 out of 10,000 individuals in the United States were living in an emergency shelter, transitional housing program, safe haven or place not meant for human habitation on that cold night.
Relying on data from sources such as the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Homelessness Research Institute found that from 2011 to 2012 there was a slight decrease in all homeless subpopulations — with the exception of persons in families. The number of people in homeless families actually increased 1.4 percent and 26 states saw an increase in family homelessness during this period.
In 2012, families with children accounted for 38 percent of the homeless population. That’s 239,403 people — 162,246 were homeless children (a two percent increase from the previous year). Mississippi experienced a 56.7 percent increase in its number of homeless families. Several other southern states saw sizable increases too.
Interfaith Hospitality Networks
Family Promise is a volunteer-based nonprofit organization that partners with faith communities across the nation — more than 6,500 congregations including many churches in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship — to help homeless families achieve sustainable independence. With more than 180 Affiliates in 41 states, Family Promise serves 50,000 family members each year — 60 percent of whom are children, most under the age of six.
Since its founding in 1988, this New Jersey-headquartered organization has helped more than 500,000 men, women and children through its Interfaith Hospitality Networks (IHN), the core program of Family Promise affiliates. These networks, located in large cities, suburbs and rural counties, provide shelter, meals and support services to homeless families.
A typical network is comprised of 10 to 13 host congregations, support congregations and 800 to 1,000 volunteers. Host congregations offer shelter, meals and support to three to five families for one week every three months, and support congregations offer financial assistance and provide volunteers. A network can serve 175 homeless family members in a calendar year, and on average, according to Family Promise, 75 percent of all guest families secure permanent or transitional housing within two months of entering the network.
Every Sunday afternoon, the network’s paid staff deliver beds and other supplies to the host congregation. Church volunteers then turn Sunday school classrooms and other space into sleeping rooms for the guest families. In the evening, the families arrive and church volunteers prepare and serve a family-style dinner. The families and volunteers share the meal together.
Following dinner, volunteers spend time with the families, helping the children with homework, playing games, watching a movie and just chatting. When the adults call it a night around 10 p.m, two volunteers stay and spend the night. A continental breakfast is served around 6:30 a.m., and the families are soon picked up by network staff. The children head to school and the parents go to their jobs or visit the network’s Day Center to receive assistance seeking employment, housing and other needed resources. This routine is repeated each night for a week.
IHNs allow children to stay at their school. This is a huge benefit as homelessness has a harmful impact on school-age children and their ability to learn, especially those forced to regularly switch schools. Thanks to the network, homeless children dropped off at their school, week after week, are afforded much-needed consistency during a time of tremendous upheaval in their lives.
Keeping families together
More than 375 homeless families reside in Wake County, N.C., where family homelessness has grown at a steady rate in recent years as housing costs have soared and incomes have not. The Wake Interfaith Hospitality Network (WIHN) serves this area and receives the support of 35 area congregations. Trinity Baptist Church in Raleigh is one such supporter and has partnered with WIHN since the summer of 2005. In those eight years, according to Trinity’s IHN coordinator Jenny Wilson, the church has served 124 families as a host congregation — 147 adults and 244 children.
Wilson leads a team of 10 that coordinates Trinity’s efforts. Her crew sets up the space for guest families on the first Sunday afternoon and returns the following Sunday morning to make the space “look like Sunday school again.” Throughout the week, Wilson’s Lead Team coordinates the 75 volunteers that are needed to cook meals and fellowship with the guests.
“We have people who love WIHN so much that they are permanent on the volunteer list. We know every time we serve as host, we will have a certain couple that will be staying on Tuesday night,” Wilson said.
Eight years after Trinity became involved in the network, Wilson’s Lead Team is still intact — only one original member has stepped down and that was due to a family illness.
“Sometimes in life you go out saying, ‘I’m going to bless people.’ And it’s the other way around. We are so blessed by this ministry,” Wilson emphasized. “We have volunteers from the church who sign up at every opportunity because they feel the same way.”
Interfaith Hospitality Networks like WIHN do what many emergency shelter programs do not — they keep families together. This aspect is one reason why Trinity Baptist is committed to the network.
“In Wake County, we have shelters, but many of these shelters will not take a mom with a son that is over a certain age,” Wilson explained. “The Interfaith Hospitality Network allows these families to stay together.”
For Wilson, this ministry is personal. Years ago, she was laid off when her company downsized and was unemployed for quite some time. Fortunately, Wilson and her daughters did not have to experience being homeless. But, she realizes how easily her circumstances could have been different.
“I made the statement one time that when I left the church each evening, because I go every night to spend time with the families, that when I got ready to leave, I put my keys in my car ignition, and I drove my car to my house,” Wilson said. “And I put my keys in the door and then I opened the door. My stuff is there. It just made it feel very real to me what it must be like to lose all of that.”
“We keep a guestbook where guests write notes before they leave. More than once, they have thanked us as a congregation for not making them feel different because they are homeless. And that’s what it’s all about. It is about welcoming these families, and for me, it was knowing this could have been me. This could have been me. It’s brought on a new awareness.”
Meeting community needs
Down in Georgia, First Baptist Church of Athens is another congregation committed to offering hospitality to homeless families. In 2004, FBC Athens became the first host church in the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Athens. Later this year, the church will celebrate its 10th anniversary as a vital member of the network it helped bring to Athens.
FBC Athens is a downtown church in a college town known as a hub for the homeless because of the quality services offered. Located just a few short blocks away from the University of Georgia campus, this Athens church has made addressing homelessness a central part of its mission.
“We went through a visioning process over the last couple of years and what came out of that process was the goal to better use our facilities for the needs of the community,” explained Sherri Divers, who is beginning her fourth year as the church’s IHN coordinator.
“And, fortunately we have the facilities where we can do the host weeks. We put showers in so the guests can shower in our church. Things like that we take for granted. If you’re homeless and you have somewhere to shower, that’s a big deal. We’ve opened our facility up to the needs of the community.”
“Our members have just embraced this ministry,” Divers added. “We believe we’re doing what God wants us to do. It’s not anything we’ve entered into lightly. There’s been much prayer and discernment. When you’re a downtown church, you have to address the needs of the area. Shame on us if we don’t address it.”
Beginning a new journey
In Harker Heights, Texas, Trinity Baptist Church is eager to address the problem of family homelessness in their community — a community located just a dozen miles from Fort Hood with a reported 1,000 homeless students enrolled in the public school district. Trinity recently received training from a nearby Family Promise affiliate and will soon begin its new role as a host congregation. And the church is excited to begin this journey together.
“We are hoping that Sunday school classes will be the primary meal providers. Four Sunday school classes have already signed up,” said Trinity pastor David Morgan. “Six of the seven evening meals are already covered.”
To churches like Trinity Baptist in Harker Heights and others thinking about getting involved in an Interfaith Hospitality Network, Wilson and Divers offer words of advice.
“You can’t out give God. When God puts this in front of you, you need to take it and go with it,” Wilson said. “God is going to bless everything you do, and you’re going to meet some wonderful people in the process. You’ll stand in the parking lot and cry with these families when they leave at the end of the week, because they’ve had
a good week.”
“The biggest blessing to me is to see God’s presence in this ministry,” Divers said. “Take this ministry one day at a time and be flexible. If you can help one family stay together, that’s a big deal.”
To learn more about Family Promise and connect with an Interfaith Hospitality Network, visit http://www.familypromise.org.