Family Promise is on the frontline against homelessness
● By J. Chambless
The resource center is located in Kennett Square. Family Promise’s model provides a place for families to stay together during the difficult time, whereas the few, overburdened shelters in the area sometimes must separate families because of space limitations.
The number of people in southern Chester County who have faced homelessness has more than doubled over the last three years.
This includes people who are the most vulnerable in the community -- the elderly, the disabled, and children. During the 2016-2017 school year alone, there were 384 children who were homeless at some point in the four school districts that serve southern Chester County.
“We have children, we have babies, who are sleeping in cars. That's not right,” said Susan Minarchi, the executive director of Family Promise of Southern Chester County. Since it started on Nov. 1, 2015, Family Promise of Southern Chester County has been one of the local organizations that has led the effort to fight homelessness in the area. So far, 45 families who were facing homelessness have been able to secure housing as a result of the local Family Promise program, and those families are all still in housing―an indication of just how impactful the program has been.
During a recent interview with Kennett Square Life, Minarchi and Kimberly Zuleba, the vice president of Family Promise of Southern Chester County's board of directors, talked about the factors that are leaving an increasing number of local families vulnerable to homelessness, and about the organization’s mission to help those families who are gripped by a financial crisis.
Family Promise of Southern Chester County is one of approximately 211 affiliates that are part of a national Family Promise initiative that started in one community in New Jersey in 1986. The Family Promise initiative aims to provide help to children and their families so that they can achieve lasting self-sufficiency and stability. Meals and shelter are provided through a network of volunteers at church congregations. Locally, 13 host churches are prepared to host up to four families, or 14 people, once every 13 weeks, while volunteers from more than a dozen other churches serve as a support system to the host churches. The goal is to keep families together while the adults work toward solutions to the crisis that they are facing.
“We give families a hand up, not a hand out,” Minarchi explained. “Every family is different, and every family’s needs are different.”
Through their work with Family Promise of Southern Chester County, Minarchi and Zuleba have learned about the needs that exist in the community, and the struggles that many families experience day in and day out.
It’s the Family Promise team that provides assistance to three generations of one local family that couldn’t maintain housing. It’s the Family Promise team that helps out an expecting mother during a critical time in her life.
Zuleba explained, “The face of homelessness is not what you see in the movies, These are folks just like you and me. They are people that you see every day when you go to the grocery store.”
Many of the people who are on the frontlines in the effort to help individuals and families who are struggling say that homelessness is a significant, and growing, issue in southern Chester County. A leading reason why southern Chester County is seeing a spike in homelessness is the lack of affordable housing in the area.
“We are in an affordable housing crisis in southern Chester County, and most people don’t realize it,” explained Melanie Weiler, the executive director of Kennett Area Community Service. “It really is the silent crisis in the community.”
A two-bedroom apartment in Kennett Square now rents for $1,200 a month―or more―on the open market, leaving people with low incomes or fixed incomes with few options as they struggle to meet their basic needs. It’s no coincidence that homelessness in the area has increased at the same time that the costs for housing have soared.
“Affordable housing has become very difficult to find,” Minarchi said. “Until the whole community comes together to make a commitment to low-income housing, homelessness will be a challenge.”
There are other factors, such as high childcare costs, rising medical costs, and insufficient public transportation, that can contribute to families’ struggles to meet their basic needs. When families are forced to use too much of their regular income to meet basic needs, there is a higher risk that they could face homelessness because any setback, such as an unexpected medical bill, can be a financial catastrophe.
The physical and psychological impact that homelessness can have on a person or a family can be devastating, especially for children.
To help families in need, Family Promise of Southern Chester County offers a unique solution that costs approximately 70 percent less than a traditional shelter to operate. The Family Promise initiative brings together local church congregations to provide food and shelter. The program provides a resource center as a home base for families in the program, the organization has been able to keep families from being separated in the social service system, while assisting the families to get back on their feet with lasting results.
Here’s how the program works: The families in need stay at a host church facility for dinner, fellowship, and for overnight accommodations. These host churches are scattered throughout southern Chester County. After being served a breakfast in the morning, families then travel back to the Family Promise resource center in Kennett Square where they will work with a case manager to find employment, affordable housing, and learn about other social services that may be available. School children are picked up at the resource center by their schools so that they are able to maintain educational continuity. Family Promise has a van to transport families between the resource center and the churches.
Each Family Promise affiliate is independent and relies on people in the community to shape it to meet the needs of that community. Community initiatives include a wide array of programs. Some get to the heart of core needs, such as childcare and job training. Other initiatives, such as financial literacy and GED tutoring, find ways to match the strengths of local volunteers and the interests of local corporations with the needs of the guests. Similarly, many initiatives build off core tenets of the Family Promise Program itself, leading to efforts like food assistance, furniture and clothing donations, auto donations and health and wellness programs.
Minarchi got involved in the local Family Promise effort through Annalie Korengel, the pastor of the Unionville Presbyterian Church. Minarchi attends that church, which was among the first churches to sign on to support the initiative. Korengel is the president of the Family Promise of Chester County board.
A dedicated board of directors has been a vital part of Family Promise’s success, but so too has an army of volunteers. It takes a lot of volunteer hours from the faith community to staff the host churches.
The resource center is another important component of the program, and volunteers help to collect donations so that they are available to families who are using the resource center. When Family Promise of Southern Chester County started its program in 2015, the resource center was located in West Grove, but a new use of that facility prompted Family Promise of Southern Chester County to look for a new home. The organization was able to secure a long-term lease on the building at 1156 W. Baltimore Pike in Kennett Square. It fits the organization’s needs well.
The resource center serves multiple purposes. It is here that case manager Omar Henriquez meets with families to talk about their situation and evaluate how they can be helped. Families can use the resource center as a home address as they apply for jobs, look for homes, or seek out other resources. There are computers for the families to use.
“Most job applications are online now,” Minarchi explained.
The resource center has a large kitchen so that families can prepare their meals and eat together. There are washers and dryers here as well since doing the laundry is often an important need.
Supplies like toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, are always available because families often show up with very little.
“We want everyone to feel like they are at home, when they are here,” Zuleba explained. “We want them to have what they need.”
The resource center has a storage area for clothing, housewares, and other donations that are distributed to the families.
There’s also a toy shop where a parent can pick out a toy and wrap it for their child to give them a gift.“We try to make a big deal out of birthdays,” Minarchi said.
Being able to utilize so many donations, Zuleba explained, helps Family Promise operate with a low overhead.
“Everything that is in the building, except for the electronics, is donated,” Minarchi said, explaining that “The community has really been so supportive.”
So supportive, in fact, that if a specific need arises, they can reach out to the hundreds of volunteers and the network of supporters and ask for the need to be met. “When folks find out that we have a need,” Zuleba said, “we do get a great response.”
An illustration of this is when Minarchi sent out word that they needed pillows for the families to use. They received such a great response that they still have a supply of pillows.
Family Promise is always looking for housewares because when a family is ready to leave the program and move into a new home, they usually need a lot of housewares to get started again.
“It’s a new beginning for these folks,” Minarchi explained, “and we want to provide them with a comfortable start.”
Another key part of the Family Promise program is the post-shelter extended support that they provide to families. While providing housing to families addresses the immediate need, it is important to alleviate the underlying causes that put the family in that dire situation. Family Promise stays in contact with the families, and offers an array of services that ensure that families do not fall back into homelessness.
There is also a small food pantry for families who have graduated from the program but still need some assistance with meeting their basic needs.
They ask the families to set aside a percentage of their total income to build up savings.
“We are very strict about that,” Minarchi said. “We want to make sure that they are on the road to self-sufficiency that is lasting.”
Minarchi said that the model that Family Promise utilizes works well in southern Chester County, just as it does in more than 200 different communities across the country. Locally, the average amount of time in the program for a family is 53 days, compared to the 60-day average nationally. Once they graduate from the program, the families are in a much better position than when they reached out to Family Promise for help.
“It’s worked for 30 years,” Minarchi said of the Family Promise model. “It’s a great model. I love what we are able to do.”
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email editor @ chestercounty.com.