In January 2019, Keasha—mom to a teenage son, pet parent to a 9-year-old Labrador/border collie mix, and a math teacher with a master’s degree—needed to quickly leave an emotionally abusive domestic situation in Georgia to protect her son’s—and her own—well-being. She wanted to move as far away from Georgia as she could, so she chose Arizona.
In her haste to flee, she wasn’t able to arrange housing before she left and, instead, decided to research social service organizations that might be able to help. She learned about Family Promise, a housing safety-net agency with a unique network of volunteers that helps those searching for emergency shelter.
“It was really a blessing to have a place to go to that would even allow my pet to be there,” says Keasha, who has been living in her own apartment since last March.
Family Promise – Greater Phoenix, part of a national organization, began its nonprofit mission of providing emergency shelter locally in January 2000. To date, the organization has helped more than 1,200 families in the Phoenix area, says Ted Taylor, executive director of the organization, adding that 84 percent of families in America that become homeless are headed by single mothers with an average of three children age 9 and younger.
"Our typical guest is a single mom who has been staying with her children in the homes of friends or relatives," says Ted Taylor.
“Then, the adult runs out of options. The day they call us is the day they’re told they can’t stay there anymore.” (Taylor notes that there are also many single dads, grandparents, aunts, uncles and other heads of household with legal custody of children the organization helps.)
Here’s how Family Promise works: An adult with custody of children in need of emergency housing contacts the organization directly or is referred to them through a social service agency, school or hospital. All family members must be drug- and alcohol-free, not be in an active domestic violence situation, or have violent felonies in their past. The family is brought together to one of three “day centers” operated by Family Promise in either Glendale or south Scottsdale. A fourth center is opening soon in Mesa.
The family, along with up to three other families at the same location at one time, is welcomed into a living room setting, where they stay until 5 p.m. Right away, after they’ve settled in, “we start educating them about how to manage cash flow,” Taylor says. If they need it, the adult is assisted with finding job opportunities. On average, he says, the adult is employed within 28 days of arriving at Family Promise. “We also start working with our nonprofit partners to find the family sustainable housing.”
At 5 p.m., each family is transported by van to one of 54 participating churches or synagogues, where they will be fed dinner and provided with a private space for all members of the family to sleep overnight. The congregations often create the spaces for up to four families at a time from unused classrooms or a fellowship hall. The 54 congregations operate on a rotating basis, so each church or synagogue assumes the responsibility for dinner and lodging for an average of 12 to 15 people every night for seven nights in a row, and then another congregation performs those functions for the next seven days, and so on.
Usually, Taylor says, three congregations at a time are extending their hospitality, one for each of the day centers. Soon, when the fourth day center opens, four congregations at a time will welcome families for seven nights in a row.
Every morning, at 5:30, the families are brought back to the day center from the participating congregation to get ready for their day at work or at school. The hosting congregation will have provided breakfast and lunch supplies for each family. Each family member spends the day at work, at school or looking for work (babies and toddlers are in day care arranged by the parent or guardian). School-age kids are transported, if necessary, to and from school. Then, at 5 p.m., from the day center, they get back on the van and are transported once again to the congregation for dinner and an overnight stay. The typical family “graduates” from the program in 43 days with a job and an apartment they can afford, Taylor says.
The families say good-bye to each congregation on Sunday mornings; they will be welcomed by another congregation that Sunday night.
“This is where the miracle happens,” Taylor says. “In those seven nights, relationships have been built. And it’s amazing to watch the emotion and the tears between the families and volunteers as they’re departing. This is the power of love and healing in action. We like to think of it as a ‘love immersion’ program.”
Pastor Kimber Govett of Sunrise United Methodist Church in Phoenix says they are so happy to partner with Family Promise. “When we host families at our church, it is a transforming experience, not only for the families who receive love and care from us, but also for the members of our church who receive the same in return.” Sunrise Methodist has been a participating congregation since 2018.
Keasha, who is now working as a math teacher at a Valley charter school, says she’s grateful to Family Promise for the help she received for two months in early 2019.
“This is an organization of people that really cares about families,” she says. “The volunteers at the congregations help families, too, not only by providing meals and shelter, but by networking and helping the moms and dads connect with people who know about job opportunities. It’s a whole community that cares about helping families in their time of need.”
By Debra Gelbert
Photo: Mark Lipczynski