Karen Newsome’s life changing experience came in an unlikely way. While attending a difficult church denomination meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she took a break to walk the busy streets and was struck by church steeples casting a shadow on the city sidewalks where she knew the homeless congregated.
“I was moved to tears as I thought to myself, ‘While we debate and argue, while we divide over issues just as we have done since the beginning of time, there are families in the very shadows of our steeples and houses of worship who desperately need our support,’” she says. “There are families who find themselves experiencing homelessness and not knowing where they will find shelter. There are dads who want nothing more than to provide a safe place for their children to sleep tonight as well as moms who don’t know how they will feed their children.”
That was in 2012. Today, Karen is executive director of Family Promise of the Midlands, a national organization that began as a response to a homeless crisis in Union County, New Jersey, in the 1980s. Karen learned about Family Promise when a branch opened two years ago in Columbia. Earlier this year, she discovered there was an opening as executive director and did not hesitate to apply. She felt that her work as a Presbyterian pastor and former hospice chaplain prepared her well.
Karen learned after reading about the establishment of Family Promise in the Midlands that Karen Olson, founder of Family Promise, actually had a similar life-changing experience that guided her to found the organization. “She was able to bring together not only churches from every denomination, but also various faith traditions because she recognized that they all felt a mandate to serve those in need,” Karen Newsome says. “And thanks to that vision, we now have 208 affiliates in the United States and seven affiliates in South Carolina. And while on the surface it may appear that our impact is not as great as traditional shelters, which provide many beds in one location, it is breathtaking to realize that what we are doing at Family Promise is being duplicated in 208 other affiliates spread across 44 states in our nation every night of the year.”
The South Carolina Coalition for the Homeless 2016 report puts the numbers at around 5,000 statewide, with just fewer than 900 in Richland County. Of course the number of displaced persons cannot be precisely quantified because paperwork is not generated on all individuals. What is certain, however, is that not all of the homeless fit the common stereotype. According to Karen, there is no simple box to check. She explains that many are classified as “chronically homeless.”
“These families are best served in a traditional shelter where they can receive long-term case management and services. I am deeply impressed with the heartfelt support that Columbia shelters offer these chronically homeless individuals and families,” she says.
However, while the vast majority of news reports focus on providing shelter for the chronically homeless in Columbia, Family Promise of the Midlands’ specific mission is to serve families who experience “situational homelessness,” meaning those who suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves homeless. For example, Karen says situational homelessness might occur when parents experience an unexpected death or illness and can no longer meet their mortgage and other expenses. Many people in Columbia are just one crisis away from losing housing.
Because situational homelessness does not fit the mold of homelessness, families are often underserved. They have no idea where to go, how to navigate social service, and to whom to turn for guidance and support. The scarcity of affordable, safe housing in Columbia poses a tremendous challenge for many families, says Karen, adding, “This problem is complicated by the reality that many jobs do not pay enough to begin to cover basic living costs like housing, daycare, and medical needs.”
One “guest,” as the homeless in need are referred to at Family Promise, told Karen, “Several years ago I lost my father, stepfather, and eventually my mother over a close period of time. After my mother died, I began to lose all hope and shut down in many ways. I did not respond to text messages or phone calls, and I became very depressed. I really felt that I lost all hope and my faith.”
Family Promise steps in to help guests by offering a unique shelter opportunity. Families rotate through one of the area’s 16 dedicated churches equipped with Family Promise volunteers who do everything from prepare meals to set up bedrooms to offer a listening ear.
There are an estimated 1,000 volunteers for Family Promise of the Midlands at any given time. Nationwide, the volunteer numbers are staggering. This point is touted on the main website, which states, “If all of the volunteers were employees, we would be the 36th largest business in America, right ahead of Starbucks.”
“Our volunteers find that many of the stereotyped images they once carried about homeless families are dispelled, and our volunteers often leave committed to finding creative ways to address the dynamics that lead to homelessness in Columbia and our nation,” Karen says. “Thus the impact of this program is much more profound than simply providing shelter for these families. Family Promise is, in effect, more of a movement than simply a program.”
A guest who became depressed after a series of losses in a short amount of time was deeply moved by this initiative. “Being helped by Family Promise volunteers has renewed my hope,” this guest shares. “And now I find myself not only feeling that I’ve gotten my faith back, but also wanting to find ways to give back. I can’t wait to be able to volunteer for Family Promise someday, and I’m looking forward to finding a home church once I get settled in my new home. Being in this program has changed my whole outlook on life.”
Churches are an integral part of the structure of Family Promise as the organization would not exist without them. After a careful screening process to identify active addiction, mental health, or abuse issues, families are approved and the process begins. The 16 churches that act as hosts provide a week of shelter four times a year. A pool of volunteer truck drivers deliver beds to host churches. Unused classrooms are transformed into bedroom spaces. Finally, host churches provide meals to guests. Often, a host church will hang a detailed logistics board with volunteer names filled in for every need.
Although Family Promise is relatively new in the Columbia area, the national Family Promise organization has a high success rate regarding assistance to homeless families. According to Karen, around 75 percent of families served transition into permanent housing in less than nine weeks because of intensive case management and community support.
Karen says that after formerly homeless families are able to once again maintain homes, challenges often do not stop there. Enter Olivia Williams-Turner, case-manager. Olivia is a retired Army logistics officer who says experiences in the military informed and shaped her ability to work with families and volunteers.
Olivia felt called to join Family Promise of the Midlands this past spring after volunteering for a while. “It’s kind of like a hospital for hurting people,” she says, “but they can’t stay at the hospital even though many express how they are feeling loved and cared for sometimes for the first time in their lives. I have to hold their feet to the fire and not let them get too comfortable. I’m a coach and a cheerleader. Guests make weekly goals they have to meet, and I serve as a reference for them if necessary.”
Volunteer Steven Preston, executive director Karen Newsome, case manager Olivia Williams-Turner, and board member Bonnie Montgomery work together with a variety of local churches to help families experiencing situational homelessness.
Guests look for work, learn skills such as money management and resume writing, take children to school or summer camps, investigate future housing opportunities, and much more. Family Promise keeps a room full of donated furnishings for guests transitioning to permanent housing at the main Shandon-located offices, and a computer lab is also available for guests.
A 12-week guest with her 12-year-old daughter explains that she is tapping into resources she never knew existed. “I don’t ever want to be in this predicament again,” she says. “I want job security, emergency savings, and a full-time job. And Family Promise is helping me.”
Karen says that local affiliate guidelines allow Family Promise to take up to three families or 14 people at one time. “These small numbers are critical in allowing our staff the time to do intensive case management,” she explains. Families typically stay from 30 to 90 days but can stay longer if an extended need is determined.
Family Promise operates with funds from local grants, generous individuals, and church donations. Substantial gifts have been donated through an anonymous “Cheerful Giver” opportunity, and Karen says groups like the Woman’s Club of Columbia have provided funds to help families transition into permanent housing. “And recently, a long-time friend of Family Promise donated a generous stock partnership that we were able to sell to reach our $100,000 Every Child Deserves a Home annual campaign.” Each February, Family Promise of the Midlands hosts a gala as well.
Overhead costs are kept low because churches donate their buildings for housing, and volunteers donate time. Some monies are provided to help re-establish families on a case by case basis. Each aspect of the transition process back to independent living is carefully evaluated to determine needs.
Karen wants to shout about Family Promise from the rooftops of Columbia so that everyone will know about the importance of serving and expressing compassion to those in need.
“Our community needs to understand the increasing problem of family homelessness throughout the Midlands and their roles as members of this community to help eradicate this tragedy,” says Karen. “As Olivia often says, ‘When people know better, they do better, so the responsibility is on Family Promise to educate, educate, educate. Homelessness is not just a bad dream that’s going away.’”