The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted Family Promise of Cowlitz County about halfway through its first year serving homeless families, and the organization’s leaders said they’ve been “shifting gears” to adapt ever since.
The nonprofit program hosts homeless families with children in churches and helps them find housing and connect to other services. However, the pandemic has put a hold on the program’s signature rotation among churches and halted families from moving into housing, said Lisa Staudinger, executive director.
“It sent everyone scattering,” she said.
In late March, Family Promise went into “static shelter,” meaning the families stayed in one location. They began rotation again in late June, but will be going back to a static mode on Sunday because only about one-third to half of the volunteers felt safe providing services in person, Staudinger said.
“It’s unfortunate because contact with volunteers is where the real power of the program is,” she said. “Homelessness and isolation go hand in hand. Sometimes it’s a cause, and sometimes it’s an effect, but either way, the spiral goes deeper and deeper once it starts. The faster you stop that spiral and get people tied into community again, the easier it is to recover. That’s why this is a huge blow, because we are an intentionally social program — and being social these days is extremely difficult.”
Staudinger said when people are already “economically fragile” because of low wages anything can push them into homelessness. About 43% of U.S. households can’t afford a $400 emergency, and when people don’t have savings it doesn’t take a lot for them to lose their home, she said. A robust social network helps prevent people from becoming homeless because they are a lot less vulnerable, Staudinger said.
“One thing hits you economically and if you don’t have anyone to call on to help you get that last $200 for your car payment or something, that’s it. You have no car, no job,” she said.
Under normal circumstances the program can serve no more than 14 people, about three to four families, at a time. In the past year, three families have graduated from the program into permanent housing, Staudinger said. Two others have been ready to move, but the pandemic delayed their plans, she said.
One family in the program is expected to move into housing within the next six weeks, Staudinger said. The other family is looking for a rental, but the limited supply of housing in this area has made it difficult for the family to find an adequate home in their price range, she said.
The Kelso First Baptist church offered to house one of the current guest families if Family Promise takes in a new family before a current guest family can find an affordable rental. But new families won’t stay at the church because not enough hosts are comfortable with in-person volunteering, Staudinger said.
Family Promise is converting two rooms in its day center into guest rooms where the families can stay until conditions improve enough to restart the rotation, Staudinger said. The organization is interviewing potential new guests over the next couple weeks, but will only be able to host two families at a time once one graduates.
“We want to serve more people but this has stopped us in our tracks for months,” she said.
Meanwhile, interest in the program has kept up throughout the year and Family Promise has been trying to find alternatives for people, Staudinger said. Family Promise has provided outside case management for more than 40 families, helping them avoid or get out of homelessness without fully entering the program. The organization refers families to other agencies and in some cases has helped them avoid homelessness entirely, she said.
Staudinger said a “little silver lining” of the pandemic has been the social service agencies in the area working more tightly together than before and helping each other.
The pandemic also affected the nonprofit’s fundraising efforts, canceling three of its planned events. Staudinger said the organization altered its approach and held a virtual “Night Without a Bed” fundraiser in June. Family Promise will be participating in Give More 24!, which is always an online event, she said.
“Before COVID-19 we were absolutely on track in growing our volunteer base, name recognition and development efforts,” Staudinger said. “Now we’ve put so much energy in adapting and changing, I think there’s been a dip. We’re starting to adjust, get creative and find ways to tie ourselves in the community in different ways.”
Dave Martin, Family Promise board president, said he’s been happy how the community has embraced the organization and hopes to get that excitement back once pandemic-related restrictions ease.
“I really believe in this program,” said Martin, pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Longview. “It’s one the county needs. I think it’s going to show what a vital resource it is to the community.”
Martin said once the organization can become more established and grow its financial resources and community awareness, Family Promise leaders are hoping to expand to two rotations of families at the same time. Martin said another goal would be to offer some kind of affordable housing and preventative services.
Staudinger said Family Promise and other social service agencies need the public’s support because the need is growing quickly. After eviction moratoriums and other pandemic-related relief run out, Staudinger said she expects more families to fall into homelessness. More people need to learn about poverty and homelessness to better understand and be motivated to support the organizations that help, she said.