Be sure to welcome strangers into your home. By doing this, some people have welcomed angels as guests, without even knowing it. -- Hebrew 13:2 (CEV)
One year ago, volunteers and staff were cleaning out rooms left and right at Bethlehem in preparation to invite strangers into our house of God by becoming the Day Center for Family Promise of Skagit Valley. As a congregation, we made this decision after a few short, prayerful weeks when the other locations for the Day Center fell through just as the ministry was preparing to open doors.
Family Promise has made an enormous difference in the lives of children and their families. In less than one year, 11 families have moved into housing. The program is currently full, with one family of 7 and three families of 2. The ages of the children currently range from 10 months to 16 years.
The Day Center has changed during this first year. Thanks to grants from Thrivent and the ELCA, as well as funding from Family Promise, the Day Center at Bethlehem now has a bathroom with a shower, and by the end of the summer will have a second handicap accessible bathroom/shower and laundry facility. The Day Center also will soon have a playground thanks to our auction. In addition, each of the four families now has their own guest suite where they can store belongings and have some much-needed privacy.
Family Promise has also had a wonderful impact on Bethlehem. Guests have become friends, and friends have become sisters and brothers in Christ. Many of us have had the opportunity to get to know families struggling with homelessness on a deeper level than we ever have before. We've learned just how quickly and easily life can turn upside down, and how incredibly hard parents work to recover. We've seen first hand the exhaustion that comes with working multiple jobs, caring for children who are anxious and distressed, all the while trying to find a landlord or rental agency who will say "yes". Our guests' struggles and joys have become our own struggles and joys as we recognize Christ in one another. Many of our guests have been heroes to our own family as we recognize their incredible strength and resilience in the face of adversity.
One of the struggles we've seen on a regular basis is how phenomenally difficult it is for even the best qualified families in the program to find housing in Skagit county. Even more so for those with a negative mark on their record such as low credit or an eviction! Family Promise guests who are qualified, back on their feet, with a sound plan and support for the future still apply time after time, only to be turned down. Each housing application can cost between $40-$100, and is usually non-refundable. Guests are often competing with thirty or more applicants for the same unit. The requirements for deposits, first and last months rent, and the sheer lack of affordable rental units means that families end up as guests of the program for many months after they have gotten back on their feet. It is hard for parents and caregivers to keep trying, and yet they do, day after day.
In February, Pastor Rachel attended the Skagit Housing Summit sponsored by the County Public Health Department. What she learned at the summit helped us understand why it is so very difficult for Family Promise guests to find housing. The lack of affordable housing has become a public health crisis in our county. As you see in the graphic above, there is currently a 1% vacancy rate, and over 3600 less rental units than are needed in our county, and this is projected to rise dramatically in years to come.
So the question we ask is what else is Christ calling us to do and to be in response to our neighbors? It is wonderful that we host Family Promise, both the Day Center and 4 weeks a year as a night church. Family Promise provides desperately needed shelter and support for children who would otherwise be living in cars, tents, or unstable situations. But could God be calling us to do more? And what could we do personally or as a congregation?
Here are some ideas:
Pray for families as they search for housing, as well as for landlords and property management companies. Many times it has felt like Divine intervention when a guest family finally finds housing, and families need Divine strength during that long and depressing process. Prayer make a difference!
If you have an affordable rental unit that becomes available, consider making it available to a family in the program who is ready for permanent housing. Studio or in-law apartments are just as needed as multi-bedroom units. Family Promise guests make excellent tenants because they are supported emotionally, spiritually, and in practical ways through ongoing case management for two years to keep them on the right track. In addition, guests are screened to make sure they can be successful in the program. Making it successfully through the Family Promise program is a great indicator of someone who will be a reliable tenant.
If you know people with rental units or who manage properties, tell them about Family Promise, and the outstanding families and excellent tenants who come out of the program. Share with them difference they could make in the lives of children and their families. Sharing the story really does make a difference.
If you have land that could be built on or have a mobile home, consider talking with Family Promise about how that land might be able to be used for transitional or long-term housing for well-qualified, well-supported families.
Talk with your neighbors, your city council members and county commissioners, and others about the housing crisis in our county. Let people know that you care about this issue as a Christian and a citizen. Let people know that the hundreds of homeless and many more housing-insecure families in our county matter to you.
Finally, the early Christian Church, even as it was persecuted by Rome, was known far and wide for the care and compassion shown to those struggling with poverty and hunger, so much so that the Emperor Julian complained "Those godless [Christians] feed our poor in addition to their own!" Our prayer is that, even while our own culture becomes ever more mistrustful of organized religion and Christians, Bethlehem be known in our community as the church that deeply cares.
Don’t forget those who are suffering, but imagine that you are there with them. -- Hebrews 13:3b (CEV)
Your Partners in Ministry,
Pastor Eric & Pastor Rachel