Steve Allen, the Executive Director of Family Promise of Spokane, and his co-host Joe Ader, Director of OPEN DOORS, know how to put on a show. Attendees of the Family Promise of Spokane 20 Year Celebration came for a delicious meal, to listen to Family Promise Founder Karen Olson tell the inspiring story of how it all began, and to raise money to help Family Promise of Spokane continue offering those experiencing homelessness in our city a hand up. But they were treated to more than they expected. Unless they know Steve Allen. Then it was totally expected.
Steve’s entrance involved plenty of jogging and high fives.
Then he produced a bouquet of roses, seeming to wander the crowd aimlessly, until pausing and handing the mic off to a woman who began singing a Family Promise rendition of the Disney classic “Be Our Guest”.
She walked as she sang, handing the mic to another singer who picked up the next verse, continued to walk, and handed off the mic again, and so on. Until this.
Then it was Joe’s turn. Joe is the director of OPEN DOORS, and part of his role is to educate and help people become more aware of how poverty and homelessness happen, and he plays that role well. After the musical number, Joe came out into the audience with a paint roller with red yarn spooled around it and a stack of cardboard signs. He pulled one out with TRANSPORTATION written on it and handed it and the end of the yarn to someone.
“What would you do if your car broke down?” he asked the crowd.
Someone said they would call AAA. Someone else said they would go to a mechanic. Joe talked about how people living in poverty usually don’t have those choices, so they either find a friend or relative to help them fix it, or they go without a vehicle. He started walking across the room to another man, and handed him the yarn and another sign reading JOB.
When you don’t have the money to repair your vehicle the only way to afford it is to work multiple jobs, and when you have unreliable transportation it can be difficult to maintain employment at even one. Joe walked back across the room, and handed off the yarn and another sign.
If you lose your job, it will only be so long before you can no longer afford housing. Then what do you do? Some don’t have much of a choice, others are fortunate enough to have a support system of friends and family who can take them in in times of need. Joe crossed the room again, handing off the yarn and another sign.
Joe tried to lighten it up a bit, joking about how you get sick of house guests after a few days, but this is one of the most serious pieces of the chain. Relationships can strain and even break in situations like this, and when you get disconnected from your community that isolation can have severe consequences. Consequences that can start with substance abuse
and can often lead to crime
and maybe something even worse.
One setback can lead to catastrophe if a certain conditions of poverty are present, and those conditions are becoming a reality for more Americans every day. This is powerful knowledge to impart in a time when many people view homelessness as a choice. It was something Karen Olsen knew in her heart when the seeds that grew into Family Promise started forming over 30 years ago.
She was running a successful business at the time, and having regular meetings in New York City. She couldn’t believe how many people were experiencing homelessness. Karen had an urge to do something, anything to help. So on one trip to the city she bought a sandwich to give to a woman she had seen at Union Station. Her plan was to drop the sandwich and go, she just wanted to help her eat. But when the woman took the sandwich, she also took Karen’s hand, and told her thank you, and that she hadn’t eaten since the previous day. Karen stopped and talked with her, and she realized that when you get to know someone personally you treat them as a person, rather than as homeless, an abstraction, a member of some group who has no identity of their own beyond the face others see and label.
She thought about how every person she saw living on the street had a name and a story, and a life, and soon she organized a group that made and distributed sandwiches to hundreds of people. But it wasn’t enough. A young couple that she knew had a sick baby and nowhere safe to stay. A doctor hooked him up to a portable monitor and told them to get him help if the alarm sounded, which it did, in the middle of the night, when they were nowhere near available medical care. So their baby boy passed away. Karen wanted to have a space where families could be safe, and could access services when they needed them. She had no idea where she was going to find a space like that. Then one day she heard about an idea called interfaith hospitality, where congregations of different churches work together to host people experiencing homelessness, and she started what would become Family Promise, never dreaming that one day her vision would grow to over 6000 partner congregations across the nation.
There was one other woman Karen spoke about. This woman had divorced her husband and was living with her one year old boy in their car. And she was employed full time. She didn’t have anyone to care for her baby while she was at work so she had to pay for childcare, an expense that took a significant portion of her income. So she would get off of work, pick up her baby from daycare, and sometimes go to the Wal-Mart and pretend to shop. Or they would drive to the park. But she would have to take her baby to the bad park, because the good parks had patrols that checked for cars parked there too long. Karen said this woman told her that on their first night staying with a Family Promise host, she held her baby tight all night long because she wasn’t used to being so close to strangers. But then as the days and weeks went by she realized that these strangers accepted her like family, with no judgement. She told Karen that she had never experienced that unconditional love before, and it made all the difference.
After Karen spoke came the paddle raise, and she inspired the room to give big.
There was a heated battle in the upper deck to be the last paddle raise and win tickets to Men’s Gonzaga Basketball game.
After the paddle raise, Dawn Kinder, Housing Specialist for the City of Spokane, spoke about what a continuum of care means and how Family Promise of Spokane is working with the city to keep the services in that continuum available and growing for years to come.