Story and photos by Katie Meyer
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
A continuing passion for helping homeless families drew more than 30 attendees to an “exploratory, fact-finding” meeting Monday night at Tibbetts United Methodist Church (WSB sponsor) by members of the board of Family Promise of Seattle, the shelter program that recently closed.
Representatives from a wide network of churches and non-profit groups, many of whom had worked with Family Promise, shared their questions, concerns, ideas and enthusiasm. People representing Alki UCC, Admiral UCC, Fauntleroy UCC, Hope Lutheran, Operation Nightwatch, Union Gospel Mission, Church of Mary Magdalene, Westside Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Catholic Community Services, and two Queen Anne churches (among others) were among others at the meeting interested in listening and speaking with the FP board members about possible solutions and synergies to provide services to more homeless families in the future.
The rate of families becoming homeless continues to rise. Mary’s Place, a downtown day shelter that provides services for homeless women and children, has seen a staggering 300% increase in families coming through their door in 2011. A speaker from Hope Lutheran stated they “would like to continue helping in the format we have been helping in. 100 families were helped in West Seattle at Christmas; 1 in 5 of those families were homeless. We had families who were in a tent city, others were living in their cars. I hope we can continue to be helping keep families intact.”
Family Promise’s Norm Schwamberg and David Jones gave an update of “what has transpired, and where we are at now.” It covered the history of Family Promise operating from July 2008 to mid-August 2010, when “we needed to take a break to raise money,” with operations resuming in June 2011 until mid-November, when the board “decided we didn’t have enough funding going to meet our budget.”
Not wanting to operate at “half-staff, half-speed,” it was decided there wasn’t enough prospective funding to provide families with proper service, and the corporation was brought to an “inactive status.” He praised the more than 100 volunteers.
Board president Lynne Downs spoke of the sadness many felt when on December 31st, everything at Family Promise had been closed and organization placed into “inactive” status. “There was a lot of emotion; this is our way of expressing our faith, and we weren’t able to do that any more. It’s inspired us to look at other avenues to see where this could go…at some point, some place, some way.”
Participants in the discussions were candid with both their concerns and their encouragement.
Several spoke of the positive changes in the families they had helped, and how their own families and members of their congregations had felt rewarded and closer to each other through their involvement helping homeless families stay together while receiving much-needed services on their journey to stability.
“The change in kids at Family Promise services was amazing,” said one young volunteer. She spent time talking and playing with the children of the families being helped by Family Promise, noting how they went from “…starting out not being able to look at us in the eye, to starting to play and being able to be kids again and feeling better that their parents were feeling better.”
Family Promise board vice president “Boots” Winterstein spoke of how “we were all feeling sad” after a previous meeting as the organization wound down, “but more than that, so may of us wanted to keep acting on this commitment. We are in the fact-finding, conversation stage, and we’re so happy and encouraged to have community partners coming to us and saying, ‘can we work together, can we do something,’
Winterstein reiterated that the board’s focus is to “dialogue with all the representatives tonight and ones who aren’t here, to explore partnership possibilities. We didn’t want to leave any stone unturned. But you look at the changes in these families from when they first arrive, to when they leave – they’ve gain confidence and self-esteem back. From last June through November, 29 people went from being homeless to having a stable placement, including permanent housing. It is amazing to be a part of that. “
One meeting participant raised the issue of the long-term “cost to our society of families being homeless – the loss of trust and security, always in fight-or-flight mode, filled with fear, depression – a generation will be feeling the effects of being homeless; those effects will go on longer than it may take for our economy to improve, so let’s keep working to be advocates for families. “
A spokesperson from Queen Anne Methodist Church related their “concern about Family Promise closing down and opening again, but with such a need for families in the community, and the model of Family Promise, it was very meaningful for those who participated to be able to be a part of this. We would look forward to working in the context of a viable partnership with something that had sustainability.”
On the topic of sustainability for Family Promise operations, Doug Early from Queen Anne Presbyterian Church shared his opinions: “We might move on before FP is back up and going. Folks want to keep going, and are terribly disappointed that things didn’t last, didn’t work out, so if there’s a third shot in this area, we need to see a lot of foundation. A full slate of hosts, a financial plan for immediate and future, full staffing, all of it.” Early mentioned the national organization’s milestones that should be reached before the organization launches, and those weren’t done/reached in both times with Family Promise before they got going.
One woman said bluntly, “I’m not wanting to stand up in front of our congregation a third time and ask them for money for Family Promise again,” while others spoke about “funding cuts for non-profits this year. They’ve been hit really hard right now. We could consider partnerships in fundraising.” Further conversation mentioned the difficulty Family Promise faces in landing grants and funding as a relatively “new” start-up, with more established organizations with longer history being higher profile in the line to reach their operating costs.
Terry Gaddis from Fauntleroy UCC mused “as much as I dearly love what Family Promise represents, I think in this economic climate, perhaps it’s not meant for this area. We don’t have a track record. Looking on, I’m impressed with all the representatives who showed up tonight to remind us what an important resource this is, and how best to make use of it…The next step at our church would be to get more feedback from our congregation. A number of people said ‘oh no!’ at Family Promise’s demise because they found working with the homeless so rewarding…but what is the next step now, I can’t answer for the congregation yet.”
“We also had that collective gasp at Family Promise’s closing, it’s something dear to our congregation,” said a member of Alki UCC. “Family Promise is the only place we know of where families – mom, dad and kids -–can be housed together. Questions from me are, finding ways we can participate with a rebooted Family Promise, are there ways to partner with established organizations to provide things we can’t provide, and still provide the things we can?”
Reverend Rick Reynolds, executive director for Operation Nightwatch, said his question was “what can we do to help? Our interest is like everybody’s; we don’t want to see the relational resources lost.”
Jeff from Union Gospel Mission: “It seems like with this situation, where we’re all in the same boat; when we look at it and see somebody drifting away, it seems more compelling to keep something going, rather than start something up again from scratch. We have a strong relationship with a ton of churches – maybe we can bring in more churches that could shoulder some resources. But I’m here to listen and learn how we can help, per conversations here tonight. Like Mary’s Place, we have a large ‘turn away’ list every morning.”
“We’re taking your comments to heart and we appreciate it,” said Lynne Downs. “As a board, we’d like you to keep connected to us so you can see our pathway to wherever it’s going to lead us.”
As the meeting drew to a close, Claas Ehlers, director of affiliate services for the national Family Promise organization, addressed the group with some questions and with gratitude, noting the “tremendous passion in this room,” and offered suggestions for some next steps.
“Clearly there’s tremendous passion for this kind of outreach for those who’ve been involved, and we agree that passion needs to be channeled to continue to help families however that turns out to be. Some people feel very invested in the model of Family Promise, and others are very leery about the sustainability of the model. Thanks to all of you for all that you have done. There’s 174 Family Promise affiliates around the country, and that means your congregations were among 5,000 serving the community, part of 140,000 volunteers, who served 150,000 people, children and adults, and brought them back into sustainable independence. … It’s not just the tasks that you did, helping (families) staying overnight, or cooking a meal, or playing games with kids, it’s the changing of futures – particularly those children who had their futures changed. I don’t know that there’s a more meaningful endeavor. Think about how many futures you’ve changed in the volunteers from your congregations. You can channel this energy either into a totally different program, or partnership, or Family Promise, whatever that will be … How can we move quickly so this energy isn’t lost?”
Ehlers suggested the board create a task force to accomplish those tasks (“not a committee”), to “help determine the future for those involved, determine what might be the best pathways to go down, fund development, leadership development. Decide how to and who can move quickly toward some kind of action that continues to help children and families in this community.” Ehlers then shared his contact information with meeting attendees, making it clear he was available for additional conversations and brainstorming one-on-one.
Some attendees lingered a bit, chatting in small groups. We’ll follow up if news of a new – or renewed – effort emerges.