A typical night begins with a family-style meal, everyone sitting around the same table, volunteers serving the parish’s guests.
These moments of community and sharing are some of the best for the volunteers involved, says Diane Leo.
“Our volunteers are so relaxed with the families,” Leo said. “They talk and laugh and tell stories. We get to meet so many wonderful people.”
Leo is the coordinator of St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish’s Family Promise ministry. The Marmora parish is a “host” congregation for Family Promise, a national, ecumenical non-profit that seeks to help homeless families get back on their feet.
The parish is one of 15 host churches that provide overnight accommodations for families participating in Family Promise of Cape May County.
“It’s so wonderful for everybody involved. We’re getting to actually live the Gospel by serving the poor and clothing them and giving them housing, but I think we get much more out of it than even the families do,” Leo said.
Families arrive at the church on a Sunday in transportation provided by Family Promise and sleep at the church’s facilities each night. The congregation provides meals prepared by volunteers, sleeping facilities and linens, and Family Promise provides portable air mattresses. The following Sunday the air mattresses are transported to the next church in the rotation and the families pack up and arrive in the evening at the next church to begin the cycle again.
“It’s not too much of a strain on the parish or the volunteers, because you’re only hosting up to four weeks out of the year; but it’s enough that we don’t lose the interest of the volunteers,” Leo said.
There are close to 100 volunteers involved in the ministry at the parish, which transforms its CCD classrooms by day into sleeping rooms by night during their weeks in the rotation.
During the day, the families are transported to Family Promise’s day facility in North Cape May. The spacious center includes an airy living room, kitchen and dining room, a backyard, and a clothes closet where families can choose clothing. The families eat lunch and dinner at the center, do laundry, take showers, and store their belongings.
Children are taken to school and parents spend the day looking for employment, making housing arrangements, or applying for social services, guided by a Family Promise case manager.
The center facilitates connections between the families and other agencies and services that may be available to help them with everything from job training to counseling to child care. Families typically remain in the program for 30 to 90 days.
“Our work is entirely funded through donations. We receive no government monies. The families in our program have no expenses. It’s a true partnership with the faith community to provide these people with shelter,” said network director Laurie Johnson.
To participate, families must pass a drug test and submit to a criminal background check. The program has facilities for up to 12 people at a time. No more than 14 people can sleep overnight in a church or it becomes classified as homeless shelter.
Since opening in 2009, the Cape May County branch of Family Promise has served 41 families comprising 89 children.
According to the organization’s informational materials, the program is meant to be an alternative for families who otherwise might spend months living in a single motel room in substandard conditions through the housing voucher program.
In 2014, the annual survey of Cape May County’s homeless population found 232 households, comprising 306 persons, experiencing homelessness in the county. Of these, 54 were children under the age of 18; 30 were children under the age of 5.
“We’ve seen miracles. When someone in a congregation sees the face of homelessness in a child, they’ll lower their rents for that family. We see things like this all the time,” said case manager Kathleen O’Neill. “It’s God’s mission. He does it for us.”
The faith-based identity of Family Promise has made participation a rewarding experience for everyone involved, Diane Leo said.
“Because it’s inter-denominational, it’s really brought down a lot of barriers,” Leo said. “It brings us all together with a common goal: fighting homelessness, one person at a time, and giving them the tools they need to be successful; giving them encouragement, giving them hope.”