On Jan. 30, 2013, when state agencies did the bi-annual Point-in-Time Count of the Homeless in New Jersey, they found almost 2,000 families with no place to call home.
Most were staying in shelters or motels, but 77 of those families, including almost 150 children — more than half younger than 6 — were sleeping in cars or another unsheltered location.
Family Promise, a New Jersey-based national nonprofit organization founded in 1986, made it its mission to help those families recover. Today, 182 Family Promise groups in 41 states, including 17 in New Jersey, help families get back on their feet by offering temporary lodging at a network of churches. Case workers offer assistance in obtaining social services and job training, and almost 80 percent of families obtain secure housing, according to Family Promise data.
“This is not a problem that is visible,” said Diane Osbourne-O’Donnell, president of Cumber-land County Family Promise. “It is not someone sleeping on a park bench. I had four families call me last week.”
Locally, Family Promise is expanding. Programshave been operating in southern Ocean and Cape May counties since 2009. Cumberland County Family Promise hopes to open a day center in Bridgeton in July, and the Atlantic County Family Promise is working hard to be ready for families in 2015.
It is no small undertaking.
At a recent meeting at the Absecon Methodist Church, about 20 members of the Atlantic County Family Promise discussed their goal of raising $125,000 to support the first year, finding a site to use as a day center and obtaining a 15-person van for transportation.
John and Kerry Lyons, members of the Calvary Chapel of Hammonton, drew applause as they handed their letter of commitment to board of trustees President Barbara Sabath, of Absecon. That brings to seven the number of churches that have signed on to participate in the county. Others include Absecon United Methodist Church, St. Marks and All Saints Episcopal Church in Galloway Township, Reformation Lutheran Church in Absecon, Ocean Heights Presbyterian Church in Egg Harbor Township, Hammonton United Methodist Church and Grace Lutheran Church in Somers Point.
Sabath said several other churches have expressed interest, but have not yet made a formal commitment to participate.
Angelica Kennedy, a program services manager for Family Promise who came to advise the Atlantic County group, explained a minimum of 13 churches are needed, with each volunteering to shelter families for four weeks per year. Families stay at each church overnight for a week and volunteers provide meals and stay with them. During the day the children attend school and the parents go to work or to the Family Promise day center.
“Congregations are the key,” Kennedy said. “They are the ones who spend the time and make it affordable. It’s a great mission.”
Church members said the program is a way to demonstrate their faith and work in their communities.
“We were looking to get involved in something with the church and community, and the pastor suggested we be their representatives,” John Lyons said. “It matched our desire to volunteer with the church’s desire to help.”
Heather Sugden, pastor at Reformation Lutheran Church, said the program is an opportunity for a countywide ecumenical effort to work in communities.
“It meets a real need, and we are one of the few counties that does not have a Family Promise,” said Pastor Dave Cobb, of Absecon Presbyterian Church.
Sabath learned about the program because it was a project of the N.J. Federation of Women’s Clubs. Many Family Promise groups get fundraising support from clubs, organizations and parochial schools.
Sabath said while the Atlantic City Rescue Mission does have some space for families, it is very limited and the need is great.
The 2013 Point-in-Time Count found 86 homeless families in Atlantic County, 49 in Cape May County, 15 in Cumberland County and 100 in Ocean County.
A N.J. Department of Education count of homeless children in schools found almost 4,500 children attending public schools in 2012-13 were considered homeless. That included 196 in Atlantic County, 81 in Cape May County, 503 in Cumberland County and 188 in Ocean County.
Osbourne-O’Donnell said parents will stay with other family members or even in their car because they worry if they ask for government help their children will be placed in foster care.
The requirements for Family Promise are fairly stringent. The group only helps families with dependent children. There can be no history of alcohol or drug use, and the sites are not equipped to handle families with medical issues.
“We are set up to be temporary,” said Cheryl Polo, director of the Family Promise of Southern Ocean County, who said since Hurricane Sandy they are seeing more families that lost their homes and are struggling to recover.
In 2013, the Southern Ocean County group had 212 referrals and accepted eight families that included 13 adults and 26 children. Their average stay was 58 days. Since opening they have sheltered 160 people, 60 percent of them children and 40 percent younger than 5.
Family Promise of Cape May has sheltered 35 families since opening in May 2009, including 47 adults and 74 children. Another 121 people received other assistance.
While they help families, their focus is children: “No child should be put to bed in the back of a car,” says the cover of a brochure for Family Promise of Cape May County, “but for many children right here in Cape May County that is their reality.”
Mark Allen, of Cape May, president of the Cape May board, said that group gets support because people in the county understand how easy it is for working class families to become homeless.
“A lot of families here are only a paycheck or two from homelessness themselves,” he said. “We never have trouble getting volunteers.”
Allen said he likes to spend time playing with the children, because many don’t have a good male role model.
Laurie Johnson, of North Cape May, director of Cape May Family Promise, said while many of the families have just one parent, they are seeing more dual-parent families struggling to make ends meet. Two families currently getting help were living with other family members for awhile, but they had to move out. Family Promise may help pay a security deposit or first month’s rent, but the goal is to make the family independent.
Osbourne-O’Donnel and Johnson said lack of affordable housing is a huge problem. They said sometimes a parent is working, but the family cannot find an affordable place to live. The 2014 New Jersey Kids Count report found more than half of households with children in New Jersey spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent.
Kathleen O’Neill of Wildwood, the social worker for the Cape May Family Promise, said they network with congregations and other partners to find housing and jobs. The group has 15 host congregations that shelter families, plus 18 support or buddy congregations — of all denominations. More than 40 businesses and civic groups also support the program.
O’Neill said people know the families have been vetted, so they may be more willing to lower rent, or provide a job or affordable day care. Congregants also have helped provide furniture and other family needs.
“Somehow, whenever we need something, someone comes through for us,” Johnson said. “The churches are the magic. All of our volunteers come from there, and there are hundreds of them.”
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