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Family Promise of Cowlitz County stops housing in churches, remodels Kelso office to shelter families

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The COVID-19 pandemic halted Family Promise of Cowlitz County’s rotational sheltering of families in churches, and the change is now the “new normal.”

The Kelso nonprofit is renovating its offices to allow overnight residents, but more work is needed to increase capacity and help more families, said Lisa Staudinger, executive director. Today, the nonprofit can only house two families, compared to its previous four.

Family Promise has offered local families experiencing homelessness temporary shelter in area churches on a weekly rotation since August 2019. After pausing the rotation in March 2020, Family Promise sheltered families in local churches from June to September, but stopped because volunteers didn’t feel safe providing services in person, Staudinger said at the time.

After polling volunteers, Family Promise staff and board of directors decided to continue hosting families in its offices — which they call a day center and also includes showers and laundry services — rather than in churches. Staudinger said it was difficult to find volunteers for the overnight shift and changing locations weekly is hard on homeless children who have already been through so much.

“Unfortunately, there’s been a philosophy that you don’t want people to get too ‘comfortable,’ but I don’t think anyone is comfortable in a shelter,” she said.

Although the change has been a complete shift in the program, Family Promise and volunteers have made changes to continue helping people in need, said Vonda McFadden, board president and Kelso United Methodist Presbyterian Church pastor.

“I cannot say enough about how everyone stepped up to the plate to do what we needed to do, whether to help us adjust the rooms, volunteer to bring food, whatever it was, they did it,” she said.

To bring capacity back up to four families at a time, Family Promise is planning to remodel two offices into guest rooms. The offices are located next to the New & Living Way church in Kelso, and complying with code requires cutting through 13-inch-thick concrete walls to lower the windows for fire safety, Staudinger said.

Renovations will eventually include adding air conditioning, she added. The center will have to install a ductless HVAC system and can’t use window units in the meantime because of safety and electrical system limitations.

Overall, remodeling will cost at least $24,000, Staudinger said. The nonprofit is also fundraising for its operational costs and for its new homeless prevention and diversion program.

Family Promise receives homeless prevention grant

Homelessness prevention

Last year, Family Promise received a $20,000 grant from nonprofit Help Us Move In and has raised matching funds to jumpstart the prevention program, which has been “a huge success,” Staudinger said.

Since December, Family Promise has helped 28 families with 49 children keep their housing. Prevention services, like rent assistance, is an important addition because it helps families avoid the trauma of losing housing and costs less. The average cost per child to keep housed is $326, compared to thousands to rehouse a family, she said.

Through its prevention and diversion program, the nonprofit can help families pay moving expenses, like security deposits, if they’re forced to move out when their rental is sold, Staudinger said. Many families can afford normal rent but struggle to pay first and last month rent plus a security deposit, she added.

Homelessness causes

Medical costs or medical leave are common reasons families lose housing or are at risk of losing housing, Staudinger said. Some have been affected by COVID-19, getting sick, missing work and falling behind on bills. Others haven’t gotten unemployment for jobs lost in 2020, and all families have been affected by inflation and high gas prices, Staudinger said.

“There’s so much affecting families and the cost of rent just keeps going up,” she said. “This is just a rough time economically for people.”

Lack of access to affordable child care, particularly after hours, can make it difficult for a single parent or for both parents to work, she added.

A 2021 Cowlitz Community Network child care access report found 42% of the 775 surveyed families said they stopped working, cut hours or stopped attending school because of the cost of child care. In the county, the average annual cost of licensed care for one child is $9,290, according to the report.

The survey found 39% of families currently or previously received financial assistance, and of those, 18% turned down a promotion, salary, or new job to avoid losing the child care benefit.

“The system that helps people survive should have an offramp, not a cliff,” Staudinger said.

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