Family Promise Shelters and Shows a Way

This article will be published in the February 2015 edition of the Homeward Street Journal produced in Association with Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee 

Family Promise  wants to keep families together and solvent. Marsha Spell, executive director of Family Promise of Sacramento, says she is seeing more and more families desperate for housing, people who have found themselves on the streets because they could not make the rent. Calls from people wanting to be taken into the program are averaging about 115 a month.

The non-profit, one of 187 affiliates in the country, guides families toward lasting independence. “The problem of poverty is complex,” says their website. “It won’t yield to a simple solution or quick fix.” For the past 10 years, the local Family Promise has approached the problem by meeting immediate needs but also by helping alleviate the root causes of their clients’ poverty.

Spell describes her 90-day program: Families are taken into their center and assigned a case manager to work with. Children go to school and parents who are not employed are required to spend their time investigating five jobs a day. Staff helps develop budgets, stressing that rent, food and utilities come first with extras after that. They also look at ongoing expenses people may have, like storage costs, car payments and insurance. “And do they have parking tickets or speeding tickets they didn’t pay,” says Spell. “We want them to address it all, moving forward, with nothing to hold them back.”

There is help with emotional setbacks as well. Family Promise offers marital counseling and anger management courses, to mention a few.

Family Promise_kids          Families use the day center for laundry, showers, telephoning, and researching and sending out resumes on computers. There is a child play area and adults who have not gone to work do chores. In the evening, Family Promise transports everyone to a church host. Churches who participate rotate the family night care once a week. Each family is given a room and meals. Currently 16 churches are a part of the local Family Promise. The faiths included are Catholic, Jewish, United Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Latter Day Saints and non-denominational.

“Each family is different. We focus on families we can help the quickest,” she says. “Most families have been evicted. The next landlord then wants two and a half times the rent to get into the building. So families get motel rooms by the month and run out of money the third week. The motels do not give them a break. The no-tells are the worst. They charge $325 a week at least.

“They could get a good apartment for that much a month but they can’t muster the deposit. So then they usually go from family members’ to friends’ homes couch surfing, but there is limit to that.

“The most common thing we see is that people do not know how to get started again,” Spell says. “They may not have had parents who taught them life skills. They may never have balanced a bank statement or know how to budget themselves. If they get behind in car payments, they might just ignore them so they don’t have to think about the problem.

“We hold them to it while we show them what they have to do to make it work. One family went out to eat at Joe’s Crab Shack and spent over $100. Another was paying $125 for a gym membership. We steer them back to basics. Most of our graduates make it when they leave,” she says proudly. “Many have stayed in contact.”

            One hundred and seventy-three families that have graduated in 10 years, 31 this year. That is a national high within the Family Promise system.

Family Promise receives no federal or state monies. “That’s a huge thing,” Spell says. “We are totally dependent on donors and grants. We are not a rich non-profit.” Like their families, “we have to watch every penny.”

Spell never seems to rest. She manages estate sales on the weekends, ferreting out cars, furniture and household supplies she can give to the families. “We get 35 percent of the proceeds. Sometimes we sell cars right on the spot, or when families are moving out, we find out if cars are available.”

She says it takes about $15,000 a month to run the program. Since the 2008 crash, donations have gone down. “But we have just picked up a couple of grants,” she says. “We have to constantly work to keep the numbers up.”

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