I have been volunteering three or four times a year since the Interfaith Hospitality Network came to Cleveland Hts in 1997. I started sleeping in the church cafeterias and social halls for 15 years with families struggling to find a place to live. Interfaith Hospitality merged with New Life Community to form Family Promise and now they are doing away with hosting families at the facility of these partner religious congregations. Instead families will stay at one facility and church members will go to that location and volunteer. The last church to host the families was Communion of Saints on the St. Ann's campus. This may be better for the families because they don't have to travel to the day center in the morning and in the evening. My concern is that the religious groups will not stay active.
I am sorry to see the host congregation concept die in Cleveland. I really love this program and will miss it. I testified for it at Cleveland Hts. And Shaker Hts. City councils when neighbors spoke of their safety concerns. I work with the shelters every day in Cleveland, so I would have something to compare the host congregation concept to. I am not sure that shelter staff, county people and the administrators understand how valuable this program is to the community. The value comes from being different from all the others shelters and services. It works for many because of the involvement of so many different volunteers. It puts in to practice the concept of the village taking care of those struggling. Homeless families are screened and then accepted into the network. They don't take victims of domestic violence or families that would be too difficult to serve by the volunteers. The families are helped during the day by a social worker and then are transported to one of the churches to sleep over night. The day shelter has showers and a place to do research and computer work. Volunteers at night make dinner, help with an activity and sleep overnight with the families.
I do not see the burnt out staff and huge turnover that I see at almost every other shelter in Cleveland. The volunteers who prepare a meal, plan a game or sleep overnight want to be there. We were not punching a clock and we did not dread hearing the stories of tragedy we hear form the families. The volunteers only donated their time quarterly so they were not callous or jaded. The volunteers brought a thousand different talents to the families. Some might have known a job lead, others may have known a vacancy in an apartment, while others may have known the superintendent of schools to cut through the red tape of getting transportation back to the child’s school of origin. Some of the volunteers could pick up the phone to get I.D. for a child while others can get immunization records we have. There are hundreds in each congregation who can offer help to these families.
It is a hassle to provide transportation but that is what makes the program work. It is a pain to organize all the volunteers with their busy lives, but the volunteers are a huge irreplaceable asset. The trained day center staff can work on housing, jobs and stability, and they do not have to worry about food, sleeping and monitoring. In my book it works!
In a time of huge increases in homeless families in Cleveland we need a bigger network not a reduction. In a time when we are housing 20 families in overflow every night in Cleveland, we need the churches to do more not less. In a time when we lost family shelter beds such as the closing of Continue Life, we need more access to family shelters and not less. We heard that this move may also result in the reduction in the number of families that Family Promise can serve. Congregations, individual parishioners and clergy will forget about the problem if they are not forced to become involved at least quarterly. It is a hassle to have to rally the volunteers, food and space to serve these 4 or 5 families, but it keeps the issue of homelessness in front of the congregation.
Some of the volunteers are sitting down with the parents to talk about their issues. They learn how long the waiting lists are for housing. They hear how employers will not hire a person who does not have a solid address. They face discrimination in employment, housing and even from some in the social service sector because of their homelessness. The volunteer may learn how tough it is for a family to be in overflow or the struggles to get transportation to their child's school. I fear that without the time that they have to volunteer, the church groups will move further away from the problem of homelessness.
When I started volunteering for the Homeless Grapevine, the big churches were running a number of the shelters and the religious groups were critical to the success of the homeless programs. Now, there are very few of the programs associated with churches and very few religious leaders regularly talking about homelessness. We have come to accept homeless families as a part of the landscape and I fear that this move by Family Promise will only accelerate that trend.
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