That unassuming 65-year-old fourplex in the 3600 block of California SW (map) probably doesn’t catch your eye when you drive by. From the outside, it looks a lot like countless similar-vintage West Seattle multiplexes that have been torn down and replaced with townhouses or taller apartment buildings. But inside, it’s bright and comfortable – partly renovated to serve as the day center for Family Promise of Seattle, a project that started as an idea involving several West Seattle churches, and grew from there, as a way to help newly homeless families. Back during the “Nickelsville” hubbub last month, many asked “who in West Seattle is helping the homeless?”; this is one of the answers. You can get a closer look this Thursday, when Family Promise invites you to an open house to come see the day center and find out more about what the program and its volunteers are up to. We stopped by for a sneak peek – and to see if there was any help they needed from you right now (the answer: yes!) – read on:
That’s Marcia Olson, president of the board for Family Promise. She chatted with us a few mornings ago, while one of the families now being helped by the program rested in a back room of the day center (we photographed her in one of the small bedrooms that can be used as a children’s playroom, too).
“Our clients come here around 7:30 am, in our van or in their own car if they have one, to use this as a base during the day – there’s a computer and a phone, laundry facilities, restroom with showers, kitchen facilities for light meals or snacks. And this is where we do case management — our director, Ellen Hendrick, usually staffs and manages the day center.”
On the day we talked, Hendrick was in the midst of a rare absence (though she checked in by phone) — off to a conference with others involved in Family Promise, a 20-year-old nationwide program with which the West Seattle-based branch is affiliated. Hendrick is the first official employee hired by FP (we posted about the search last year), which relies heavily on volunteers; another hire is in the works, someone to staff the center on weekends and to be a backup to Hendrick.
Family Promise of Seattle first started helping homeless families in July, but it’s been years in the making. The idea grew from the help that local congregations provided – and still do – to different groups and agencies that help the homeless. None of those programs, though, were based in West Seattle — and to this day, there’s not much here, aside from the small men’s shelter currently at the 42nd/Juneau Church of the Nazarene.
What’s unique about Family Promise, adds volunteer Julie, stopping by during our chat with Marcia: “It keeps the family intact. They don’t have to be separated. And if it’s a man with his kids – there aren’t many programs that help those families, either.” (When Marcia made a similar point during the conversation, a client who was using a nearby computer chimed in, “Not at all!”)
Marcia and Julie both explain that the majority of shelters require the adult men, and often teenage boys, to be separated from the women and children, even if it’s their own family. In the Family Promise model, the family stays together. Here’s how it works: Participating congregations — which have grown to include a few outside West Seattle, leading Family Promise to change its official name to Family Promise of Seattle — take turns offering a week of housing to the families in the program: One family, one congregation, one week.
Each family is housed each night in a suitable area of the host church’s facility (in one church, Marcia notes, there are comfortable digs in the church office). The congregation provides dinner and a “quick breakfast” for them during the week the family is hosted; FP helps up to four families – a family is defined for their purposes as “at least one parent and one child” — maximum 14 people in all, at a time. The families are rigorously screened – no one is accepted “with serious psychiatric, medical, legal or substance-abuse problems”; they would be referred elsewhere. At the time we visited, FP was helping nine people in all (three adults and six children).
They focus on families who are “newly homeless, and haven’t really been through shelters (yet),” Marcia explains, adding that it may have been just one bad break that sent the family onto the streets, not just loss of a job, but perhaps some extraordinary medical expenses: “One surgery can send a family over the brink.”
Host and partner congregations, as currently listed in the Family Promise brochure, include: Alki Congregational UCC, Admiral Congregational UCC, Kol HaNeshamah, Fauntleroy Church UCC (WSB sponsor), Peace Lutheran, First Free Methodist, Queen Anne Presbyterian, St. John the Baptist Episcopal, Holy Rosary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Tibbetts United Methodist, Westside Unitarian Universalist Congregation (WSB sponsor), Hope Lutheran, and West Side Presbyterian.
The latter church is also responsible for the choice of facilities for the day center — the fourplex is owned by West Side Presbyterian, which is located right next to it. The church has a longterm commitment to Family Promise, Marcia explains, though the lease will be renewed year to year; it’s taken a year since the start of the lease to get the interior in good enough shape for the day center to be launched (it takes up about half the fourplex; the other two apartments, in the rear, continue to be rented to other tenants not related to the program).
But while Family Promise is a labor of love for local churches, its stated mission is clear – clients aren’t expected to fulfill any religious obligations or meet any prerequisites. As the Family Promise brochure puts it “We do not ask our guests to worship and do not attempt to convert them to any religion.” The church networks are invaluable, however, not just for providing the food and shelter as mentioned above, but also for the volunteers who help — Marcia explains that they continue to refine a schedule, with people helping maybe one shift a week, or even one shift a month. Her work with Family Promise began with her involvement in the West Seattle Churches network three years ago, “talking about how we could work together on things like homelessness and hunger — we found very few resources for families that are out there. We looked at models” – and Family Promise, which had an established program “model” that was working in North Seattle among other locations nationwide, turned out to be the way to go, and you can see signs in the day center of the love that’s brought it to life:
They have not had any major fundraising events so far, focusing instead on small ones, sometimes even a special collection at a member church. Needs do arise, however; right now, Marcia notes, the donated van that Family Promise uses to help its clients get around is in need of new tires — a precarious situation, going into wintry weather.
And there’s no question, especially the way the economy is wobbling, that the number of people who could benefit from Family Promise will continue to increase; another phone call interrupts Marcia as she is answering one of our questions, and when she returns, she says it was a reference from the 211 help line — “A mom with a 15-year-old, staying with a friend but has to get out soon,” and has nowhere to go.
Maybe Family Promise will be that somewhere. Your help is more than welcome – and for starters, you’re invited to come see what it’s all about, during Thursday’s open house. It’s 5:30-8 pm at the day center, 3623 California SW (map), with short informational presentations planned at 6 and 7 pm. Oh – and about those tires – got four to donate for the van? Give Family Promise a call, 206/937-3765, or e-mail Marcia at firstname.lastname@example.org – they’re working on an official wish list, but for starters, that would certainly help keep a few families (and Family Promise’s driver) safe this winter.