Hosting Homeless Families with Family Promise

by Kate Bosco

With a scarcity of affordable housing, homelessness has become an increasing problem in our community. Our church community is helping in a very personal and immediate way by hosting homeless families with Family Promise Metrowest.

Chalice being lit by childIn 2003, Barbie Breer and Joan Hunter-Brody began working with other churches to build the network. Five years later, nine churches opened their doors to homeless families in our area. Sixty to seventy UUAC members are on board to volunteer during one of our three one-week hosting periods. The latest was November 29th to December 6th.

Christina Player began volunteering over ten years ago. She usually helps prepare dinner for the guests, while her husband, John, is a frequent overnight volunteer. Their daughter, Zoe, also helps out.

“We like the mission,” says Christina.

John adds, “It’s one of the more concrete things that you can do to make a difference.”

The Players and Katie Frassinelli are just finishing up dinner on Wednesday night. The menu is homemade lasagna, salad, bread, and strawberries. Tuesday and Thursday, St. Theresa’s in Sherborn, a support congregation, is in charge of dinner.

The church is hosting four families now. The group stays in one of 19 churches in the Metrowest network. They sleep in bedrooms set up in classrooms. The hosting period at UUAC begins on Sunday evening. Volunteers stay after the weekly service to haul air mattresses, quilts, toys, and furniture down from the attic.

Both Katie and the Players agree that the guests are the nicest families. Despite the large number of personalities in any one group, everyone seems to get along. The children play together, and everyone helps clean up after dinner.

During the interview one of the guest children runs into the kitchen, shouting “Excuse me, pardon me.” She picks out something from the fridge and leaves again.

“The kids seem to roll with whatever,” says Katie, smiling.

After dinner and cleanup, the guests unwind from the day with the volunteers. Katie and her children Bobby, and Libby, along with their friend, Ava, are going to entertain the guest children. Tonight, it’s coloring, followed by cupcake decorating. Free-form play is also popular, but the foosball table set up in the temporary living room is definitely the favorite.

Overnight hosts arrive around eight o’clock at most churches. Donna Allen has been volunteering as an overnight host for more than three years. She doesn’t just host here— Donna has slept at nearly every church, sometimes twice a week.

“It was a joy to spend time with these families. After my first night serving as host, I thought about it all day and night,” Donna says. “Then, it occurred to me that other churches might be having the same problem filling their overnight host spots.” Donna sent a message to the volunteer coordinator for FPM, and requests came pouring in.

Overnight hosts make sure that families are comfortable, and tend to any emergencies that may occur during the night. In the morning, they lock up the church. The families then go to the day center in Natick, where they prepare for work or school. Families can use the day center as a resource as they build their independent lives. A dedicated caseworker and volunteers are available to help get them on their feet with counseling and resumes.

Interacting with the guests is more than just sharing meals and chatting. Volunteers have hosted an Easter egg hunt for the children. They’ve also put up birthday parties. Christina and Katie recount such a party for a one-year-old boy, Izzy.

“He just lit up the room,” Katie tells me. One volunteer, who had only intended to come for one night, came back each day that week after falling in love with the boy.

Donna has done a variety of activities with the guests, from playing H-O-R-S-E on the basketball court to helping one guest learn to drive. But her favorite activity is simple: “My favorite thing to do is talk with them and listen to their stories…I don’t usually know how or why they are in the program. That’s not my business. I only know that they need compassion and respect.”

The guests depart early on Sunday morning. This morning at UUAC, it’s a flurry of activity. The volunteers begin arriving at 7 AM to take down the accommodations, and get the church ready for Sunday morning worship. The sanctuary is filled with plastic bins and boxes, plus the contents of all the classrooms. Volunteers heap linens in the sanctuary, where they are sorted by Kathy Copplestone and other volunteers. A few of them will take home a bin of linens to clean and later return to the attic. The mattresses are rolled up, and small household items like alarm clocks are rounded up. The takedown goes smoothly, and the church is back in order before nine o’ clock.

Families graduate from the program when they are settled into independent living arrangements. Volunteers hold “going away” parties to celebrate. But the relationships don’t end there. Donna recently attended the wedding of a Family Promise couple, after they had moved into their own apartment.

Volunteer orientations are held the first Tuesday and third Thursday of every month at a participating congregation. You can learn more about the program at Family Promise Metrowest. Our next hosting will be in April.