Family Promise comes into play either when individuals or families can’t afford their homes any longer because of factors like job loss or unemployment, explains Sharon Odden, executive director of the Great Falls initiative. In other instances they’re coming from elsewhere, such as from an American Indian reservation, seeking a fresh start. Some are evicted from public housing or leave in advance of eviction because they are unable to keep up with their rent or utilities.
“Family Promise houses them for an average stay of 34 days, far less than the national average for such a transition, until they can pay their debts, hopefully get new employment, so they can afford to start over,” she says.
Odden explains that Family Promise originated in New Jersey 20 years ago when founder Karen Olson befriended a homeless woman in New York City and bought her a sandwich. Karen tried to find a shelter for the woman but found all were full, and so she turned to her congregation for support. Now Family Promise has 200 affiliates in 41 states. In Great Falls, the affiliate welcomed its first family in January 2015. The family had lost homes and jobs while doctoring out of state for a son with heart problems. A successful heart transplant resulted in the family’s return to Great Falls to start over.
Odden notes that the Great Falls initiative is near three American Indian reservations. “Life can be difficult on the reservations and jobs can be scarce,” she says. The initiative networks with other organizations in the community to support its clients. These include the school district, the Salvation Army, St. Vincent DePaul, the Department of Family Services, the Office of Public Assistance, WIC, food pantries and 24 churches that are part of its coalition.
In just over a year the Great Falls affiliate has served 39 families and placed 28 of them back into permanent homes, such as a house, apartment or subsidized housing.
The Matthew 25 Grant initiative, sponsored by American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA) and the Board of General Ministries, is funded by a generous, anonymous donor whose goal is to help meet the needs of “housing, feeding, education and health with regard to the less fortunate.” In Fall 2015, a total of 69 applicants received funding ranging from $500 to $5,000 with a total awarded of $169,140. Grant applications are welcomed annually by September 1 with the only requirement being an ABCUSA connection. In Great Falls, First Baptist Church has been part of the initiative since the beginning and is a vital part of the program, Odden says.
The Matthew 25 Grant, received last Fall, has been used two ways in Great Falls, Odden says. “Many families can’t afford the moving expenses to move to a home,” she says. “The grant has provided fuel for us so that our van and trailer can be used to move families staying with us. We also hosted a Christmas reunion for the 16 families who had ‘graduated’ by Christmas. It was an awesome event, and everyone went home with gifts…as well as the feeling of belonging. We are so grateful to American Baptist Churches for this support!”
Family Promise provides many little touches to make people feel at home when they are not in their homes.
“When families come into our program each member is given a brand new pillow that follows them through their stay here,” Odden says. “When they leave for a permanent home they take their pillows along, so we are always in need of pillows!”
Many families don’t have any form of transportation. “That makes it hard to find jobs and homes, so we provide bus passes and teach them how to use the bus system to get where they need to be,” Odden explains. The agency has also helped parents get their drivers’ licenses so they can get themselves to and from work if they have access to a vehicle. “We have helped with car repairs and gas cards as well. In addition we’ve paid for copies of birth certificates, since landlords will only rent to those who can produce birth certificates. Kids want to be like anyone else and being homeless sets them apart, so we get them passes to the public pools so they don’t miss out on the fun,” she adds.
Since the Great Falls affiliate began, Odden says more than 10,000 hours of volunteer time has been spent preparing and serving meals, providing company and security to people in transition, doing laundry and setting up and taking down rooms.
The application process for a Matthew 25 Grant is structured to help small ministries with limited staff time. For more information on the Grant and application process visit: http://www.abc-usa.org/matthew25/.