Group Aims To Put Homeless Families In Churches

Sep 8, 2017

The other day a dozen people crowded around a ring of tables in a Macungie church community room, one of those mostly featureless spaces crowded with beige folding chairs where, so often, the call of faith turns quietly and efficiently into action.

The group is the core of Family Promise of Lehigh County, a fledgling chapter of a national organization that unites denominations in an ecumenical charge against what is known as conditional homelessness — the kind that afflicts people who find themselves out of work and broke, living an unhappy nomadic existence in cars or bouncing among the cheapest and seediest motels.

In 2016, there were nearly 550,000 homeless people in the United States, including nearly 16,000 in Pennsylvania, according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Families with children comprised about 35 percent of the national number, or more than 190,000 people.

A 2014 Lehigh Valley shelter census counted 2,500 people, including 644 children, housed in the region's nine emergency shelters and short-term transitional shelters.

"A lot of times it's people living check to check," said Tony Crimaldi of Allentown, a retired school superintendent who started the chapter after reading a story about the hundreds of homeless students attending Lehigh Valley schools each year. "A lot are young couples with children. To keep families together, that's our goal."

How to do that? By providing temporary free housing in churches or other sites to give them a chance to regain their footing — either by saving their wages for a down payment on rental housing or finding a job.

Nationally, Family Promise helps around 70,000 people a year through county-based groups run by 180,000 volunteers.

Under the organization's model, 13 host sites, mainly churches, rotate the responsibility to provide a week of overnight accommodations. That amounts to four weeks a year for each site, or fewer if more churches or community agencies join.

During the day, clients are taken to a day center, a kind of headquarters where they can attend to basics — showering, laundry — and devote the rest of their time to job hunting, workforce training and other tasks to help return them to stable lives.

So far, a dozen churches have signed on to the Lehigh County program, and the group has a line on a day center site in East Allentown.

It would be an ideal spot, said member Kathy Frey.

"When you're dealing with families going through homelessness, you want a place near a downtown," she said. "That is their access to everything they need — the government center, the social security office. Everything."

How soon Family Promise launches depends, as do most things, on money. Steve Kovacs, running through the treasury report during the recent meeting at Macungie Christian Community, said the group has about $18,000 in hand but needs quite a bit more.

"We feel we'll be financially viable when we attain expense coverage of four to five months," he said, estimating $50,000 would cover that period.

Ultimately, Family Promise wants to reach the point where it can hire a director and a part-time driver to shuttle clients from churches to the day center.

That will take some doing. Nonprofits rely heavily on grants, and competition for those is always stiff. To better its chances, the group needs to tighten its mission statement and offer a solid strategic plan, said Frey.

But, Kovacs added, "we have the zeal, we have the incentive that we're going to get this mission accomplished."

Crimaldi said Family Promise can take pressure off Allentown's Sixth Street Shelter program, which houses families and provides the same sort of social reintegration services at its three locations.

"There's a major need in the Valley and not a lot of agencies to address it," he said.

Across Lehigh and Northampton counties, 263 families are on a waiting list for various shelters, including the Sixth Street Shelter and the Third Street Alliance in Easton.

Those numbers are maintained in a central database by the Lehigh Valley Regional Homeless Advisory Board, composed of government representatives, homeless advocates and citizen volunteers.

The board's coordinated entry program allows anyone experiencing a housing crisis to call a number or visit a shelter for housing information.

"Once (Family Promise) is up and running, we'll approach them about getting in the coordinated entry program," said Chris Cassidy, senior planner with the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley and chair of the advisory board. "We definitely want them to be part of the partnership."

Alan Jennings, director of CACLV — the agency runs the Sixth Street Shelter and other programs — said Family Promise would be a welcome addition to the area's social safety net.

That such efforts are so sorely needed only underscores how dysfunctional the American response to homelessness has been, both in government and among people of means, he added.

"What's a better word than crisis? Calamity? It's frustrating that in 2017 this is the way we're still trying to deal with families that deserve better," he said. "That's not to criticize (Family Promise) at all. It's great to have people care enough about their neighbors to do this type of thing.

"If they can find the resources to do it well, there's no reason why any of us shouldn't be thrilled they're doing it."

In addition to grants, fundraising is the other part of Family Promise's financial mechanism. Among other activities, members volunteer at Coca-Cola Park, raising money by working at concession stands. The group is also hosting an antique appraisal fair, show and auction Sept. 30.

Homeless Families

In 2016, there were about 550,000 homeless people in the United States, including more than 15,000 in Pennsylvania.

Families with children comprised about 35 percent of the homeless population. That equals about 193,000 people.