By Sean Sullivan
For many families struggling under the threat or reality of homelessness, Covid arrived as a pandemic within a pandemic. The housing crisis had been spreading for years across America and beyond, a pathogen spawned in part by an inadequate quantity of homes and their commodification.
Family Promise Metrowest is a nonprofit whose mission is to prevent and end homelessness - an organization that has been buffeted too these past few years by the pandemic within a pandemic. The Massachusetts chapter was founded in 2008, just one of many across the country.
Formerly, Family Promise Metrowest worked closely with religious congregations to house families struggling with homelessness. The group had established relationships with these various congregations throughout the region, and the latter would lend out their schools as havens to house families in need.
One shortcoming to that system was that a given family could only remain housed at a congregation for a week at a time. A family would store their belongings at the Family Promise Day Center in Natick, where they could shower and bathe, prepare for work and school.
Evenings, that family would then go to congregations where they would have a home-cooked dinner, time to connect, and place to sleep. Come morning, the routine would repeat at the Day Center. They were then moved to a new congregation, where the process would begin again.
Imagine all the trials and travel of the work and school week, and then add atop that the stresses and uncertainties of living under a new roof - every seven days. Though use of the congregation space was a free and most welcome resource, this rotating model was less than ideal for families treading water, struggling to reach a stable shore.
Then came Covid, and the congregation model was jettisoned virtually on a dime. As was commonplace in those heady and uncertain days of 2020 , congregations were reluctant to welcome more people near their pandemic “pod,” for risk of exposing their flock to the virus.
Family Promise turned instead to housing families in local hotels - a costly alternative, but one made more viable via pandemic-assistance programs provided then by government.
Then more recently, the Natick chapter of Family Promise lost its executive director. She stepped away near the start of summer to pursue other goals, and the organization was left to deal with a much more localized challenge amid the global crisis brought on by Covid.
“We had a whole lot of things hit us all at once,” said Amanda Elkin. “So it was a lot of fresh starts for us in June.”
She had been serving as Communications Director for Family Promise Metrowest’s Natick chapter, and took on the job as interim Executive Director while the organization seeks a full-time staff member to fill the spot.
Yet among the many silver linings large and small to be found among the lingering dark cloud that is Covid, there was this. The pandemic gave Family Promise a perch to glean a new perspective.
For many workers broadly, that new perspective proved they could do their jobs from home. It meant the daily sentence of round-trip commutes were commuted, and they could repurpose that time toward far more fruitful and fulfilling pursuits. They could be more closely connected to family and community. For Family Promise, that pandemic pause offered a step off the treadmill also, a view of the big picture and a vision of ways the program might be changed for the better. The organization had known the rotating congregation model entailed added burdens for families already struggling under the weight of circumstances; Family Promise had been debating ways to change that model for some time.
Yet Covid offered the organization some breathing space, the opportunity to develop a 5-year strategic plan to map the Family Promise vision and future. A more stable, static model was agreed upon, one where families would be housed exclusively at the Day Center, while all stakeholders worked toward the attainment of more permanent housing solutions.
In addition, the Day center was renovated this year, a physical upgrade to aptly complement the organization’s new philosophy and programs. The Day Center can now temporarily house up to three families while staff work with them to transition into homes of their own.
And within that new model and renovated Day Center, families also were afforded more breathing room. Stability begets stability, and the inverse also holds true. Faced with all the up and downs, the uncertainties that come with homelessness - trying to get a leg up in such situations is daunting at best. Like trying to build a birdhouse while riding a rollercoaster.
“It’s been awesome,” said Elkin. “They can spend time and energy focused on their goals.”
That’s also where another recent Family Promise innovation has proved invaluable. By focusing on keeping families in their homes, The Life program seeks to short circuit the downward trends that can lead to homelessness, stop the crisis before it happens. That, says the organization, is far less disruptive to families, easier and cheaper than getting them back into housing once they’ve lost it.
A major component of Family Promise programs has always been coaching. Staff and volunteers act as an advocate and source of accountability, working closely with them to budget, search for jobs, attain educational credentials, and much more.
And that coaching dynamic has been a major part of the Life program’s success. Family Promise works with families at risk of losing a home or apartment, sometimes acting as liaison between tenant and landlord to prevent that end.
The far greater portion of Family Promise funding comes from donations, said Carole Brodrick. She is Director of Development of Family Promise’s Natick chapter. The organization relies on grants and community fundraising events, such as the Walk to End Homelessness.
“We really have to do a lot of fundraising on our own,” she said. “Families are struggling. We’re really educating the community to see how we can come together and help.”