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He was a ‘happy little kid.’ Then he and his mom became homeless. But there was help

‘They really showed me how to get up in the morning and smile, and not be ashamed of who I am’

William Fifield, 13, speaks about his experience in the Family Promise program during their Hope Auction in Bellingham, Wash., on Saturday, March 23, 2019.
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William Fifield, 13, speaks about his experience in the Family Promise program during their Hope Auction in Bellingham, Wash., on Saturday, March 23, 2019.

When Jolynn Stoumbaugh got her paycheck, she spent it living in a hotel with her son for a week.

When the money ran out, they often camped in a tent in a friend’s back yard. That pattern repeated in the months that the family was homeless after being evicted from the Bellingham apartment they had lived in for 11 years.

A couple of times, they were able to stay in another friend’s home.

“I remember just living my life as a happy little kid, not having to worry about anything,” said William Fifield, now 13 and a seventh-grader. “And then I ended up becoming homeless. And then everything got so much worse.”

For the 40-year-old Stoumbaugh, it was a frightening time. They were homeless, but the single mom made too much money in her job at Unity Care NW, where she handled dental billing, to qualify for help.

“What do I do? It was an ego buster for me and embarrassing, too,” Stoumbaugh said.

Family help

Mother and son shared their story with The Bellingham Herald in March, three months after they moved into a house with the help of Family Promise of Whatcom County.

Family Promise, launched in Whatcom County on April 2, 2018, brings churches together to feed and temporarily house homeless families.

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 has a history of providing emergency and transitional housing for families through other efforts.

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Volunteers move beds from a trailer into St Paul’s Episcopal Church, a Family Promise host congregation, in Bellingham in summer 2018. Family Promise Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Family Promise of Whatcom County also is key because it keeps together families who would otherwise be split up in homeless shelters, often along gender lines, organizers have said. It also helps people, such as Stoumbaugh, who make too much money to be helped by other programs that have income qualifications.

Organizers said they started Family Promise here because they were concerned about the number of homeless children and families in Whatcom County, 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 966 students in Whatcom County were homeless in the 2017-18 school year, according to the most recent figures from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

That’s down slightly from 981 students in the 2015-16 school year.

In the year since its launch in Whatcom County, Family Promise has helped about 18 families who were homeless.

At least 12 of them went on to get permanent or transitional housing, after staying in the program an average of 7-1/2 weeks.

In those families were at least 44 children and 23 adults. Stoumbaugh and her son were among them.

“I’m grateful for that program. They came along beside us and helped us,” she said.

Family Promise of Whatcom County is a network of 31 congregations and 850 volunteers who are pooling their resources.

Cari Griffith, one of the volunteers, explained why so many want to help.

“I think that many people want to be a part of the solution of homelessness, but they don’t know what to do that will be effective. The Family Promise model creates an effective solution where many people do small parts, and collectively we move families toward healthier places in their lives,” Griffith told The Bellingham Herald.

“It’s doable and sustainable,” said Griffith, a member of Northlake Community Church in Bellingham and the primary recruiter of host and support congregations.

How it works

Thirteen of the congregations serve as host congregations that 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, where they are given shelter and food.

The other faith-based communities, known as support congregations, provide volunteers and financial assistance to help the host churches. But there are no religious requirements to receive help from Family Promise.

In addition to overnight shelter, Family Promise 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. They work on financial literacy and receive parenting education.

They build connections and they build relationships.

“We become family,” Carolyn Roy, program manager for Family Promise, said to The Bellingham Herald.

“We’re working with them when they’re in their greatest time of need,” Roy added. “Family Promise gives families recognition that people care.”

Roy said the program works with families on a range of needs — and housing may not be the first of those needs.

For example, she said: “The highest need isn’t housing. It’s childcare. So take care of the childcare piece, then the job piece can fall into place. Then maybe the driver’s license to get the car and then the housing.”

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Jolynn Stoumbaugh and her son William Fifield, 13, sit in their living room in Ferndale in March. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald

One family’s story

Stoumbough and her three children — she has two other children who are older and now living on their own — were evicted from their apartment July 31.

She entered Family Promise with William, her youngest, in October.

Stoumbough remembered the kindness of volunteers — one man who watched movies with the children so she and the other moms could have time to themselves and another group who played the game Guess Who? with William.

They moved into transitional housing in Ferndale on Dec. 28.

Now, Stoumbough is trying to save enough money so they can move out of the house in Ferndale, which is owned by the city but overseen by Interfaith Coalition, and into a permanent residence.

She makes a little more than $20 an hour, she said, but she’s a single mom who lives paycheck to paycheck.

And rents in Whatcom County are high and vacancies are low.

“Where do you get that extra money?” Stoumbough said.

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William Fifield, 13, lies on a bed at The Firs Retreat Center, a Family Promise host congregation, in Bellingham in November 2018. Jolynn Stoumbaugh

Their months of homelessness was a tough time. William said he felt self-conscious. It was hard for him to be himself in school.

But Family Promise helped boost his confidence, he said, and made it possible for him to interact with more kids so he has people supporting him.

And now, they have a home in Ferndale.

“I know that it’s not for everybody,” Stoumbough said of Family Promise. “But you’ll never know unless you try it. You know it’s better than the alternative.”

Without Family Promise, “I don’t know if I would have been able to get us out of there as quickly as I was able to,” she said.

Learn more

familypromisewhatcom.org and 360-676-6207.

familypromise.org

interfaith-coalition.org

whatcomhsc.org

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.
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