Helping Homeless Help Themselves

A couple of weeks ago, I put the spotlight on Titus Thomas, a man who is working hard to pull up his family from homelessness.

Now I want to tell you more about the program that’s helping him do that: Family Promise of Hawaii.

I was impressed with Family Promise. This is an organization that understands its niche — families with children — and serves it very well.

Mary Saunders is executive director of Family Promise. She says they select participants carefully, because they put a lot of time, expertise and money into helping each family succeed.

First, the basics immediately are taken care of. Local churches provide 30 host sites in Honolulu and Kailua that provide the families with a safe place to sleep for a week at a time. At the end of the week, the family moves to a different host site. They will be doing this for up to four months.

During the day, a van shuttles the families to the Family Promise “headquarters.”

“This is where they have access to meals, showers, laundry, case management, storage,” explains Saunders. “It’s their home base.”

It’s also where they have a mailing address and dedicated phone line — vitally important to people seeking jobs.

Speaking of jobs, Saunders says the preference is for at least one of the adults to have full-time employment, but they have on their wait list people who have part-time jobs or are actively looking for work. The truth is, she says, “without a source of income, you don’t get housing.”

Saunders says every family is different but “all it takes is one life event to change your course …”

That could be illness or an accident, as was the case with Thomas. Or it might be that they were living with relatives and had no place to go when they had to leave.

Whatever their circumstance, they have one thing in common — they need help learning how to deal with a budget. Which is why, Saunders says, they spend a lot of their time focusing on what she calls “financial literacy.”

The adults have to be willing to hand over every scrap of financial information every month, including what they make at their jobs and their monthly bank statements.

It may seem extreme, but Saunders says they have to be sure the families are saving money. Family Promise gives them shelter and all their food.

They don’t have to spend money on diapers or wipes or transportation.

In return, they’re expected to deposit money in the bank every month in order to build a solid base for getting into —and staying in — a home.

“If they have income issues, credit issues, we work on showing them how to go about changing that. We spend time looking at how they got there in the first place.”

And where they can go from there. It amounts to a change in mindset, Saunders says. And that’s the greatest challenge of all.

The rules and regulations are clearly laid out, as are the expectations. They meet weekly with their caseworker. Because they are staying at the host sites, they have a curfew, unless their job require them to work late. They’re expected to be at dinner. Saunders says, “We give them the resources but they still have to do the work.”

Not all people are willing to put up with all the rules and the classes. Some voluntarily have left the program, and Family Promise has had to ask a few to leave. Still, Saunders says, there are a lot of people who want a chance to turn their lives around and are willing to do what it takes. Family Promise works with six to eight families at a time and “I have a hundred people on our wait list.

“We don’t want to do a quick fix,” adds Saunders. “We want to make sure our families are permanently housed.”

And that’s the promise for these families: Not a handout, but a real chance to make — and keep — a better life.