Church and State for the Homeless
Church and State for the Homeless
When Kimberly Banks unexpectedly lost her job in 2006 and her job search stretched from weeks to months, she became despondent. Living in a Denver motel, she would frequently wake at 3 A.M. and cry out to God in prayer as her two sons slept soundly nearby. "I was always a woman who said I can take care of my own. There were some nights that I didn't want to keep living because I felt like less than a mother, like my kids were better off somewhere else," Banks recalls. "I didn't know what to do."
But getting involved with Denver's innovative Family and Senior Homeless Initiative (FSHI) changed all of that. Banks was matched with a mentoring team from a local church. They met regularly for financial counseling, support, and encouragement. The church paid the first month's deposit on an apartment and helped her furnish it.
A year later, the outlook for the Banks family was hugely brighter. Banks started college full-time and she didn't have to move. Success stories like hers give FSHI leaders reason to think their ministry model could be useful in solving the nation's growing problem of family homelessness.
In the past seven years, the initiative has helped about 1,100 families, beating its original milestone of aiding 1,000 in 10 years. Some 86 percent of the families who take part in the initiative still have the same housing after one year.
"It's almost double the average," says Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, who was mayor of Denver in 2005 when he and religious leaders launched the program. "Look at the bang for the buck. This is one of the highest-yield philanthropic activities you can do."
Word of FSHI's success has spread beyond Colorado. Since the recession of 2008, underlying causes of homelessness have changed. The number of homeless families nationwide grew 30 percent between 2007 and 2011, says Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has studied homeless populations for 24 years.
Job loss, major medical expenses, or both are top reasons why heads of households and their dependent children become homeless. Rather than go to a shelter, many families seek to "double up." But that only works for so long.
Prior to 2008, being homeless was more an affliction for single adults without jobs or children. Not anymore. The Metropolitan Denver Homeless Initiative's 2012 "Point in Time" report (a one-day survey conducted every January) revealed that the total homeless population not only grew, but two-thirds are now from families, a sizable shift from the 2005 report, when 60 percent were single adults without children.
One case in point is Shawnee Fleming, a Denver resident. She lost her job as an office manager of a health-care billing business in late 2008. Despite her best efforts to keep herself and her preteen twin daughters in housing the following year, Fleming found herself in a shelter on Christmas Eve 2009. While the daughters lived temporarily with their father, Fleming "doubled up," staying on couches with family and friends.
Those welcomes eventually ran out. Fleming looked frantically for a full-time job, while doing in-home nursing and selling perfume along the way. When the city's seventh-coldest December on record unfolded, she was forced out of her car and into a shelter.
After making contact with FSHI, Fleming and her daughters moved into an apartment. She still works as an in-home nurse, but she's applying for financial aid to take classes for a job in medical billing and coding. "God just opened doors," she says.