United Methodists aim to keep "Family Promises"

New Sarasota volunteers for Family Promise from Bahia Vista Mennonite, New Life Lutheran, and First Presbyterian Churches share a meal with other volunteers. -Photo by Derek Maul

When First United Methodist Church of Sarasota wanted to help homeless families, member Dawn Wilson was one of the first to get involved. The congregation partnered with several other faith communities to launch a local affiliate of Family Promise, a national non-profit committed to fighting poverty and helping homeless families achieve long-lasting self-sufficiency.
“We were one of the founding churches six years ago,” she said. “I was on the initial board and chaired the committee to find a day center. We worked a year before we got all the ducks in a row.”
Wendy Fitton, network manager for Family Promise Sarasota, said of the church’s efforts, “First UMC is one of our outstanding host congregations,” she said. “Their financial support, volunteer team and spirit play a vital role in our mission. I cannot say enough about this awesome congregation.”
Family Promise provides families with temporary shelter and assistance, while helping them back into their own housing. Sarasota has 10 partner host congregations, five support congregations, and 350 volunteers.
Typically, the magic number for a network is 13-plus congregations. In Tampa’s Hillsborough County, Family Promise is in the developmental stage, and Skip Wilson of First UMC Brandon is working to get the program on line.
“There are currently nine operating networks in the state of Florida,” he said, “and five under development. There ought to be 200. We can make a difference; we can change people’s lives. But we can’t start here until we get 13 churches.” Wilson wants to share the vision with anyone who will listen. “Family Promise is a great opportunity for churches to get hands on ministry,” he said. “This is something for the entire family to get involved in.”

A Family Promise house in Sarasota. -Photo by Derek Maul

Family Promise is set up to meet the needs of homeless families with children and to interrupt the cascade of circumstances that can lead to serious social problems down the road. It is not meant to address the problems of chronic homelessness, which is often more visible.
“We’ve got a big problem in Hillsborough County,” Wilson said. “The school board reported 3,600 homeless children last month, and that’s up from 1,700 two years ago. We have a problem – but we can do something about it.”
Family Promise, which began in the northeast in 1988, has 170 affiliates in 41 states, pooling the resources of over 5,000 congregations. “We have the model,” Wilson said, “now all we need are more churches.”

In Jacksonville, seven of 18 host congregations are United Methodist.  Program director Mark Landschoot is a member of CrossRoad UMC, an active congregation that also hosts the Family Promise offices.  “Most of the families have only been homeless six months or less by the time they come into our program,” Landschoot said. “We don’t have a huge capacity, but all the families we’ve worked with over six years are – with one exception - still independent. Our mission is self-sufficiency. The average stay is 60-65 days. We do post-care for a year after they leave.”
The mission may focus on homelessness, but around 40% of the Jacksonville families join host congregations. “That’s cool,” Landschoot said. “We’re not considered faith-based, but people end up forming relationships.” Landschoot expects to see commitments from enough new congregations to split Jacksonville’s network into two 13-church rotations by the end of 2012.
Throughout Florida, social agencies report an epidemic of first-time homelessness. “More and more families are on the cusp of homelessness,” Dawn Wilson said.  It’s a challenge well matched to an initiative designed to keep people off the streets rather than rehabilitate the chronically displaced. But it’s a distinction lost on many church members.
“The general perception,” Mark Landschoot said, “is still the scary guy on the street. Fact is, at any time we’re 70% children. When people see this it changes the perception. People ask, ‘Where are the families?’ I tell them they’ve been in church two weeks. They look like any other family. We like to bust people’s perceptions.”
Initially, Dawn Wilson of Sarasota had trouble recruiting. “Everyone was reticent,” she said. “But once we got started, they understood these are families in transition.”

In Brandon, Skip Wilson loves the family spirit that defines the community. He believes it’s the spirit that will lead to success with Family Promise. “The annual budget, including the salary of a social worker, would be around $100,000,” he said. “The estimated cost if government did such a program is over $300,000.”
“The heart of a Methodist is service,” Dawn Wilson of Sarasota said. “That’s what John Wesley preached. Because we are so appreciative of God’s love to us.”
Find out more about Family Promise, and how your congregation can get involved, at www.familypromise.org.


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