As more Whatcom families become homeless, this new program could be a saving grace

Interfaith Coalition of Whatcom County volunteer Lisa Blum of Bellingham waters freshly planted flowers as she helps finish the landscaping around the new Family Promise Day Center on Deemer Road in Bellingham
Interfaith Coalition of Whatcom County volunteer Lisa Blum of Bellingham waters freshly planted flowers as she helps finish the landscaping around the new Family Promise Day Center on Deemer Road in Bellingham For The Bellingham Herald

Homeless families are being fed and temporarily housed by churches in Whatcom County as part of a new effort to help them get back on their feet.

The program, called Family Promise of Whatcom County, launched Monday. It is part of an effort that began in New Jersey in 1986 and has grown to 200 affiliates across the country.

In Whatcom County, it is a program of Interfaith Coalition, which already has a history of providing emergency and transitional housing for families through other efforts.

Family Promise of Whatcom County is a network of 26 congregations and hundreds of volunteers. About half of them are host congregations that will provide space for families to sleep.

Families — up to five are helped at a time, for a total of no more than 14 people — rotate among congregations each week.

Church of the Assumption in Bellingham was the first to provide overnight stays for families with the program's launch.

The other faith-based communities, known as support congregations, provide volunteers and financial assistance to help the host churches.

Helping families in need

Organizers said they launched Family Promise in response to an increasing number of homeless children and families, from those living in their cars or camping outside to those who are inside but are couch-surfing or doubling up with others.

A total of 981 students in Whatcom County were homeless in the 2015-16 school year, according to the most recent figures from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

That creates a host of problems for students and affects their ability to focus in school.

"Students facing homelessness also are far more likely to experience food scarcity, troubles with regular transportation, and inadequate medical and dental health care," said Roxana Parise, homeless support specialist for Bellingham School District.

"They also have greater difficulties with regular school attendance and having a place outside of school where they can focus and complete homework assignments," she added.

Bellingham School District, which had about 559 homeless students in the 2015-16 school year, will refer students and their families to the program.

"We’re excited about the potential we see in this program to help fill gaps in services for families who are experiencing the many challenges of homelessness," Parise said.

In addition to overnight shelter, Family Promise also provides transportation each day that includes taking families from host congregations to the Family Promise Day Center, a 1,300-square-foot house, on Deemer Road. There, they can shower and get ready for school or work.

Families also work with a case manager, connect to resources, work on their resumes, and look for jobs and permanent housing while at the center.

Nationally, families spend an average of nine weeks in the program, Family Promise Director Sarah Lane said.

Whether that average holds true for Whatcom County isn't yet known, given low vacancy rates here.

"There's no deadline. We won't kick them out," Lane said. "They'll work through their milestones. We'll renew their stay as they need it, as long as they're progressing, as long as they're working through the program."

Filling a niche

The program allows churches to offer up what may be under-used spaces, which can help keep down expenses.

"Building things takes a lot of money and resources," Lane said.

Family Promise also allows volunteers to learn from those they're helping.

"The face of homelessness looks really diverse and people get to know that," Lane said. "They (volunteers) see people as their neighbors and not homeless people."

That interaction could help families rebuild their connections to the community and that connection could help them move out of homelessness. Nationally, about 76 percent of families find permanent housing, often with the assistance of volunteers, Family Promise organizers said.

Family Promise of Whatcom County also is key because its keeps together families who would otherwise be split up in homeless shelters, often along gender lines.

For that reason, Family Promise plugs a hole in the system, according to Mike Parker, director of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center.

"For those who do experience homelessness, there's very few places where they can stay intact," Parker said. "It's filling a niche. It will appeal to many families, probably not all. It's a resource that's currently not available."

The Whatcom Homeless Service Center and homeless liaisons for school districts in the county will help screen families. There are no religious requirements to receive help.

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Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea