Church and State for the Homeless
Stories like Fleming's show FSHI fills an urgent need, says Don Reeverts, president of the Denver Leadership Foundation, an influential civic group. Reeverts worked closely with Hickenlooper to get FSHI off the ground. "The kernel of the idea came before the tsunami of economic crisis," says Reeverts. "We have people who never dreamt they would be on the streets. If we hadn't done this, it would have been a disaster."
Since its launch, FSHI has fielded inquiries from cities nationwide, including ones in Tennessee, South Dakota, Florida, and Virginia. All have undertaken efforts similar to the FSHI model. Earlier this year, Memphis leaders launched a program modeled after FSHI. In that Tennessee city, family homelessness is driven by lack of education, inadequate job training, and weak support networks for families.
Colorado plans to roll out FSHI-inspired programs statewide. "It's presenting a huge open door to the local church," says Brad Hopkins, FSHI's director. "There's a crisis, partly economic, partly the breakup of the family. There's a greater sense of urgency to mobilize the church to intersect with this need."
'Magic in the Bottle'
A key turning point in addressing homelessness occurred back in 2005. Cities were abuzz over the vision of Philip Mangano, then executive director of the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness. Mangano called on policymakers to end, not manage, homelessness in 10 years.
In the Mile High City, the response was "Denver's Road Home," a large-scale plan linking together agencies, nonprofits, and organizations toward that ambitious goal. As Hickenlooper headed to the Colorado Prayer Luncheon that year, he considered ways for the region's religious community to collaborate more completely in helping needy families. A 2005 research report revealed that more than 1,000 Denver families had recently stayed with family or friends, rented cheap motel rooms, or slept in cars or under bridges.
Hickenlooper wondered whether every church, synagogue, and mosque would volunteer to mentor one homeless family each. Reeverts signed on to Hickenlooper's idea and organized a group of clergy. Within weeks, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic leaders agreed to serve as an oversight council.
Attention quickly turned to the Denver Rescue Mission, a full-service, evangelical agency for the homeless since 1892. In the mid-1990s, the mission had taken under its wing an outreach program for homeless families. Brad Meuli, the rescue mission's chief executive, agreed to use that program as the infrastructure for FSHI. Reeverts says this dynamic alliance formed between city leaders, clergy leaders, and the rescue mission is "magic in the bottle" to overcome homelessness.
FSHI's community coordinator, L. Shawn DeBerry, herself an ordained minister, helps keep everything coordinated at the grassroots. "You pull from sources, depending on what you need," she says. Requests from a needy family might go in any number of directions since there are such a large variety of resources linked together. This approach, unmatched on this scale anywhere in the country, brought strong results. More than 350 churches, seven synagogues, and one mosque are involved; together they hope to help 500 additional families by 2015.