Welcome in God’s House

This article is part of an ongoing series spotlighting Hope South Florida, a unique collaboration of city officials, social agencies and the faith community with a single purpose – to end family homelessness in Broward County.

A father moves to correct his 12 year old son’s spelling. He fears the day when his son’s questions will outpace his knowledge even as he dreams of his being the first to walk across the stage to receive a high school diploma.

A mother tucks the blanket around her eight year old daughter’s legs. The night has turned cold and her daughter often kicks off the covers. A man stands on a corner with a sign that reads: “I have a God given gift of voice. I’m an ex-radio announcer who has fallen on hard times.”

The question seems simple enough. Choose the description of the person you recognize as homeless. Did you choose the man with the voice? The mother with the concern for her child? Perhaps the father with fears of the future?
Did you choose all of them?

True Face of the Homeless
If you are part of the congregation at First Presbyterian of Fort Lauderdale, your chances of choosing correctly were probably significantly heightened. After years of being involved in homeless Life, members of the congregation have seen for themselves that the face of homelessness in their community is the face of a father sitting in a public library trying to help his son. After he lost his job, the library is the only place open to them with lights. They’ll spend the night outside wherever they can find some temporary shelter. It’s the face of a mother who doesn’t tuck her daughter into a princess bed at night but into the back seat of the car parked at the area big box store. The mother’s sleep will be fitful as she is constantly vigilant in fear that someone will approach the car while they are sleeping.

Tim Dobbins, Director of Missions at First Presbyterian, explains, “My role is to coordinate the work of our church in the world. Locally, that means our work with the hungry and homeless. We have been involved in The Shepherd’s Way almost since its inception and we have supported them through our missions or benevolence budget. For the past six or seven years, we have also served as one of the host churches with Faith in Action.”

Help is a Phone Call Away
Pat Mantis is the Director of the area Faith In Action Community Housing program. This unique and highly effective program encourages area faith-based organizations to provide temporary “safe housing sites” for homeless families who are unable to get into a traditional shelter because of overcrowding. Pat explains, “When a family contacts 211, the homeless help line, and reports that they are in foreclosure or living in their car, they are taken through an intensive intake process to assess their need. With all of the shelters full, they are put on a waiting list and that list is provided to us. Our initial contact with them is by phone and we begin with those who have the greatest need. A family with a child under two who are living in their car is assumed to be at greater risk than a family who is still in their home but may be facing foreclosure.”

Getting Ready for Guests
Pat continues, “Every week, a different congregation commits to providing these families a safe haven from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. while we try to break down the barriers that will keep them from getting into a traditional shelter.” Barriers that can be as simple as a lack of a picture ID or a valid birth certificate for a newborn- each of which will keep a homeless family from being able to be welcomed in a traditional shelter. Each night, we transport the two to three families to the church along with air mattresses, toiletries, clean linens, pillows, wash cloths and towels – all the necessities for an overnight stay. Sometimes the church has designated a Sunday School room or space in the worship center or fellowship hall.”

Room at God’s House
Pat confirms that the resemblance to hosting guests in our own homes is intentional. “We ask the church’s volunteer coordinator to arrange for a shared dinner at the church. This becomes a wonderful time where the volunteers are able to welcome the clients to their home. It may be the house of God but there is a true spirit of hospitality. It is a time of fellowship – often with games for the children and a chance for the adults to get to know each other. The coordinator has arranged for two or three parishioners to stay overnight in case a need arises during the evening,” Pat adds.

Leaving the House for Work and School
Pat describes a morning routine that is a familiar one to many parents: “By 6 a.m., everyone is up and given breakfast as the children are prepared for school. Usually by 7 a.m., our van arrives to take the children to school or daycare and the adults to appointments that we have scheduled as part of their case management, so that we can advocate on their behalf.”

A Change of Heart
Tim Dobbins is enthusiastic about the changes that serving as a host church has produced, not just within the families First Presbyterian has helped but also within the hearts of the congregation. “I think that it has been so important for our people to realize that not 100% of the homeless are the ones on the street corner- all the people that we are referred are families.

These are mothers and their children and our folks just fall in love with them. It’s our chance to recognize that behind the tag of homeless are people with dreams, hopes and fears just like us all who have found themselves in a stressful position. If we who are maybe a step or two farther along in terms of resources can help by providing a few nights where they don’t have to fear someone knocking on their car window as they sleep, it’s a good thing,” shares Tom.

 “One of our volunteers almost teared up as he described the powerful effect that a conversation with a homeless man had on his wife. During that interchange, asking the man where he was from or talking about his dreams, the two found a mutual point of contact as you would in a conversation with anyone, and the volunteer was able to express the message verbally and non-verbally – ‘You are important, you are welcome here and you are worthy of my time.’ We have seen so much fruit from the fact that surrounding all that we are doing is that we are doing it in the name of Christ.”

A Key to Success
Each year, the Faith In Action program serves almost one hundred families by providing an average of two weeks of shelter. That works out to over 5,500 nights of shelter, a credit to the number of faith organizations that are involved and committed to providing a welcome to the homeless in the house of God until they are able to transition into mainstream homeless shelter programs.

For more information on how you or your congregation can be a part of ending family homelessness in Broward County, call Hope South Florida at 954-566-2311 or visit: www.HopeSouthFlorida.org.

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