Last Tuesday night, Ascension Catholic Church conducted a training session for community volunteers. Starting July 31st and running through August, the worship facility at 743 SE 76th Avenue will operate as a Family Promise Metro East shelter. During those four weeks, the location will host three to five families. The program aims to prevent families with minor children from sleeping on the street.
Family Promise Metro East is an affiliate of the nationwide Family Promise organization that mobilizes volunteers to help fight houselessness. They employ a rotational shelter model that houses people in one location for a minimum of one week and then relocates the group to a new location in NE or SE Portland. This model reduces the burden placed on donated facilities and volunteer staff. Michele Veenker, Executive Director of Family Promise Metro East, explained that the rotational shelter model benefits the community beyond helping the unhoused. “We have so many stereotypes and so much misinformation [about houselessness]. This gives people a chance to be involved, seeing it for what it is, which is not always what people think.” Veenker feels that by moving the shelters throughout Portland, more communities have an opportunity to support families and learn about those without consistent shelter.
Although volunteers are encouraged to learn from their experience passively, the families in the program are not on display. At the training event, Veenker stressed the importance of guest privacy. That begins by avoiding questions about how a person became unhoused and extends to probing questions about someone’s past. She explained that families seeking this kind of support are already stressed, and many are dealing with trauma. Some people talk through those situations, and others prefer to stay silent. It is not the responsibility of the volunteers to counsel the guests.
Although hosted inside a religious organization, Family Promise does not allow proselytizing. “All of [our partners] are churches so far, but one of my goals is to hopefully get some other community involvement. Because we are not a religious-based order or faith-based organization at all, but we work a lot with churches,” explained Veenker. The organization’s core focus is addressing housing insecurity among children. “Every child deserves a warm and dry bed at night, and so that’s our leading edge. We want our children to be housed in some place that’s safe and warm,” said Veenker.
During the four weeks that Ascension Catholic Church will participate in this program, up to 14 guests will arrive in the evening from the Family Promise Metro East day center. Volunteers will have prepared dinner for the families and help serve the meal. They also prepare lunch assembly stations for guests to make food for the next day. A specially trained volunteer drives the minibus between the rotating shelter locations and the day center at the Community of Christ church.
During the school year, guests return to the day center early, allowing kids to catch their school bus from a fixed location. The daytime facility has computers, showers, and laundry facilities. For kids, they have books and toys. There is an Art Room and a Nursery for the younger children. Parents are responsible for looking after their children at the day center and shelter. Although grouped together, family autonomy is respected and required.
Family Promise Metro East only has two full-time employees and is not staffed to offer wraparound services. Within the program, volunteers perform the majority of the work. Funding comes from donations, and the partner churches provide food. They have benefited from successful fundraising but will need more funds to continue this program. Although Family Promise is 30 years old, and the Portland affiliate has existed for several years, this incarnation of the 501c3 organization is just getting off the ground. They only began hosting families again last Sunday after several years without guests. The last few years have centered on building relationships and securing locations for the rotational shelter program.
Many host organizations will only offer space for one week every quarter, four times a year. Ascension Catholic Church is using its school space for this program. Consequentially, they chose to fulfill their year’s worth of support all at once during August, as school rooms are unused during the summer.
Family Promise Metro East still needs other groups with available facilities to participate. People can coordinate as volunteers or donate funds at the organization’s website. Families looking for shelter support can find information on the site’s support page. Families are defined by who the children in the group identify as their family unit. Because of the communal nature of the program, all guests are asked to remain sober and have a criminal background check free of violent offenses. Regretfully, Family Promise Metro East is not staffed or organized in a way that can protect people in an active domestic abuse situation. Specialty organizations that can maintain security and anonymity work best for families dealing with domestic abuse.
People interested in volunteering should contact Family Promise Metro East. They need onsite and remote support from people all over Portland and Southwest Washington. Neighbors around Ascension Catholic Church will likely not notice anything different during August, but they can feel good about the help offered within the building next door.