Some Cowlitz County religious congregations are hoping to hitch on to a national program to house, feed and guide homeless families in local churches.
The national program, called Family Promise, assists homeless families with at least one child under 17. Then 13 congregations take turns hosting the families. Congregations who don’t have enough space to host guests can sign up as support and offer volunteers for the program.
Recruiting churches has been off to a slow start for a number of reasons, but Pastor Dave Martin of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Longview said the overwhelming need for housing in the area makes the program a good fit for Cowlitz County.
“This is by far the cheaper model for taking care of people,” Martin said. “There are relationships formed that help people through this time of trial.”
Family Promise, formerly called Interfaith Hospitality, began in New Jersey in 1986. The program reports helping 750,000 people in 43 states and a 74 percent success rate for finding its clients permanent housing.
Martin said the program supports families who lost homes through no fault of their own. Parental illness, layoffs or unexpected tragedies such as house fires can make the bills difficult to keep up with, he said.
The program has a special emphasis on student homelessness, which is on the rise nationally and in Cowlitz County, where 830 students had no homes last year. About 7 percent of Longview enrolled students were homeless, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction reported in January.
Longview and Kelso school officials told Martin and Family Promise Secretary Karen Hardecker that it can be hard to identify homeless children.
“It’s hard to put a number on it because these aren’t usually people who are sleeping under bridges,” Martin said. “They are people who are couchsurfing from one relative’s house or one friend’s house to another, but it really affects the lives of the children. When you don’t know where you’re sleeping, you don’t really care how you do on the math test tomorrow.”
The average stay in the national Family Promise program is about 60 days, and no more than 14 people are allowed in the program at one time.
Longview currently has a moratorium on emergency homeless shelters and is drafting zoning regulations that may sharply restrict where they can be located. Martin said Family Promise organiers are in talks with the city about the issue. Elsewhere, he said, Family Promise assistance efforts are considered church hospitality events because of the small number of people involved. They are not categorized as homeless shelters, he added.
City officials could not be reached for comment.
“As we prepare to launch, there would be an inspection of the rooms that would be used (for adequate fire escapes),” Martin said. “In most areas (around the country) where it’s been done, it’s been treated like an in-house potluck.”
Family Promise of Cowlitz County already has five host congregations (see breakout for a list) and four support congregations signed up. It usually takes an affiliate program 18 to 24 months to get off the ground, Martin said.
About 40 people from 11 congregations showed up to the first organizing meeting in November. Since then there has been steady attendance at the monthly meetings, Hardecker said.
Under the program, a van picks up the families on a Sunday afternoon. The host church provides bedding, a personal space for them to stay and three meals a day. Volunteers spend the night in the church to provide support and security. In the morning, families are bused to a day center, where kids ride their school bus. Parents go to work or get help finding housing and employment.
At the end of the day, the families return to the host church for the night. Each Sunday they move on to the next place. About 50 volunteers are needed each week to make the program run.
Churches sometimes have been reluctant to get involved but become more receptive when they learn that families in Family Promise go through a rigorous background check. Sex offenders, substance abusers and domestic violence victims or abusers are barred from the program to protect all guests, Martin said.
The families might be invited to participate in church activities but are not required to do so, he said. Instead, the program aims at using the faith community to provide shelter and support for vulnerable community members.
“It’s what the church was meant to do,” Martin said. “Initially there might be some resistance until people try it and then I think it’s going to be, ‘Why didn’t we do this years ago?’”