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Joining Forces And Faiths To Help The Homeless: Missoula’s Family Promise
Montana Senior News, February/March 2013
Imagine for a moment that you were laid off from work and have zero savings. The rent is due and your unemployment check won’t cover it. You have two young children, no family in the area, and no immediate job prospects. What do you do? Well, if you reside in Missoula, one thing you won’t do is find yourself out on the street or living in your car. Not if Family Promise can help it.

A unique and effective interfaith partnership, Family Promise brings together people of various religious backgrounds to help homeless families. Their conviction is, “if you can strengthen one family you can strengthen a nation.” Together, Missoulians of the Mormon, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, and Quaker faiths have embraced this idea, joining forces and faiths to assist those in need of food, shelter, and employment. Twelve host congregations in Missoula currently offer a safety net by taking turns at temporarily housing these families in the buildings where they worship. Since it takes fifty volunteers weekly to provide the necessary meals, transportation, laundry and housekeeping services, this is accomplished one week at a time with assistance from 13 smaller support congregations.

“There is an ecumenical spirit behind this. We couldn’t do it without the synergy of the whole because it requires the larger group to make things work,” says Barbara Blanchard, the Family Promise coordinator for Missoula’s First United Methodist Church. “A core group researched the organization and Family Promise provided the template to start a network. It took two years to convince our local congregations to move ahead and then apply for non-profit status.”

“To get 25 churches to agree on anything is challenging,” adds her husband, Pat Mahoney, who was reluctant to get involved when he initially heard about the program. But as Pat learned more, his apprehension vanished. “It was the right thing to do and we had the resources in our congregation to do it.”

Family Promise started in New Jersey during the 1980s with one woman’s vision. Karen Olson suspected the religious community would share her concerns about homeless families. And she was right. They found they could accomplish more by working together than they could alone. Their experiment succeeded and word spread. Gradually congregations in other communities followed Karen’s model and took up the challenge.

Today 160,000 volunteers from 6,000 congregations in 41 states participate in Family Promise programs. In Montana, Family Promise affiliates also carry on this work in Billings, Bozeman, and Helena. So far, over 49,000 homeless people nationwide have received meals, shelter, and support with finding homes and jobs. Of those 49,000, some 60 percent are children.

According to Barbara, the program essentially functions the same wherever it’s located. Typically, people hear about Family Promise through their own religious affiliation or through agencies that are assisting them. Families can remain in the program for 12 weeks at a time before they are rotated out.

“Most of the homeless people we’ve met have lost all sense of choice. They want to get back on their feet and are embarrassed about their situation. So we focus on families that have hit hard times because of things like high medical bills, foreclosures, and job loss. We do not focus on people who have been involved with physical abuse, addictive or criminal behavior. We aren’t equipped to handle those problems,” Barbara explains. “Every family has its own room in the edifice where they can leave their belongings. If there aren’t enough rooms, separating curtains are hung in fellowship halls. Family Promise provides the roll-away beds that are moved weekly from church to church.”

Each evening in Missoula, two overnight volunteers—one from a host and one from a support congregation—sleep in these buildings of worship along with the guest families. They handle any emergencies and come morning put out breakfast fare before leaving. After breakfast, everyone departs. Children attend school or receive daycare. Adults go to a day center where they receive help writing resumes, searching for jobs, or finding affordable housing. An on-site social worker helps with housing-job plans and networking with agencies that could assist them.

“We provide a doorway to existing services that people may not otherwise know about. The intent is to help people find a job and housing and transition them out of the program. It’s a hand up, truly temporary relief, not a long-term program like food stamps,” says Pat. “We don’t just give people fish, we teach them how to fish to support themselves.”

And speaking of fish, every evening a dinner crew from the host and support congregations brings in a hot meal. Volunteers sit alongside guests to break bread together. At First United Methodist Church, if everyone present wants to say grace, they sing a verse from Johnny Appleseed that is familiar to young and old alike:
 
Oh, the Lord's been good to me.
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need:
The sun, the rain and the apple seed;
Oh, the Lord's been good to me.
 
“No proselytizing by any group is allowed. We don’t discuss religion. And we are not servants. This is a partnership. Everyone helps,” emphasizes Barbara. “Guests can make the next day’s lunch for themselves with the dinner leftovers or fix a sandwich to take along with them.”

Since host and support congregations work closely together to offer these services, one of the program’s fringe benefits for volunteers is getting better acquainted with people of other faiths. People they might not otherwise have met.

“You get exposed to such diversity. I’ve learned to appreciate volunteers from other organizations. I’ve met ministers, priests, pastors, and rabbis. It’s a common thing we all want to do. It’s not about our theology,” says Pat, a retired physicist. “It’s the individual faith in action.” One of his favorite evenings as an overnight chaperone occurred when he chatted for hours with a volunteer from a support congregation, the Spirit of Peace, who happened to be a chemist. The two scientists covered a wide swath of conversational territory discovering how much they had in common.

For many volunteers, one of the toughest things they face is not interfering with family interactions.

“We don’t intervene when we see parenting skills that are lacking,” comments Barbara. “We don’t lecture or judge. Some of these people may never have had positive role models. We have an opportunity to do that if we can encourage them to try something different.”

In addition, the volunteers also have an opportunity to do some fun things together with the families. For instance, birthdays are celebrated with cake and ice cream, at Halloween pumpkins are carved and costumes provided, and year-round families are treated to the Caras Park Carousel with unlimited rides and pizza.

Seeing people who are struggling to keep their families together has touched Barbara and Pat in many ways.

“It gives us a frame of reference for how lucky and grateful we are,” says Barbara. “When I see people worse off, it gives me an appreciation of what we have,” adds Pat, “a home, our health, and family.”

Among the other joys of the program Barbara and Pat have witnessed is the knowledge that one-third of the Missoula families who have participated have now transitioned to their own apartments.

“Family Promise works. It helps people get out of a hole and back to a more normal environment. This is about community giving—people helping people. It’s not about entitlements or hand-outs,” sums up Barbara. “Everyone has a special gift to offer and help our fellow man. You can have all kinds of programs but if a program doesn’t come from the inside out, it’s just a program.”
 
To learn more about Family Promise or to make a tax-deductable donation, visit www.familypromisemissoula.org or www.familypromise.org.