Church and State for the Homeless
The program's overall cost is $475,000 a year, with $170,000 paid by the city to fund staffing; the rest is obtained from federal sources, grants, and money that the Denver Rescue Mission raises.
FSHI director Hopkins, a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, was drawn to work at the Denver Rescue Mission in part because of the famous "Jesus Saves" marquee at its downtown location.
A significant challenge for evangelicals is that FSHI, like other government programs, prohibits volunteer mentors or staff from proselytizing. Mentors can discuss spiritual matters only if the family brings them up. This stipulation put leaders of non-Christian faiths more at ease, broadening the overall reach. There has been tension over where to draw the program lines and a few groups dropped out over time. But that's rare.
Leaders from other faiths say the program works. "Because it's each individual congregation's effort that is coordinated through the rescue mission, you don't have to get involved with anything interdenominational," says Rabbi Joel Schwartzman, a Denver clergy council member whose synagogue is involved. The program motto is "One Congregation, One Family."
As the program grew, new relationships between Denver's Christians, Jews, and Muslims also emerged. Homeless families and civic leaders gained favorable impressions of church leaders.
"From a broad-based perspective, the city can't favor one faith over another," Hopkins says. "We're trusting God to do his work through us. The Denver Rescue Mission is involved because we knew churches would step up."
Congregations recruit volunteers and with FSHI assistance, screen, train, and place them into teams. Volunteers agree to mentor at least one family, although many take on more. Mentor teams are paired with a family that FSHI has already selected. Over six months, the mentors meet with the family at least seven times, providing financial counseling, parenting tips, and encouragement.
In return, the family in need receives $1,200 upfront from the church (alternative funding is available to churches that can't provide it) to pay the first month's rent and a security deposit. The program provides families additional incentives, such as grocery gift cards, upon completion of counseling, and again after a year if the family remains in its housing.
"Relationship really is the overall goal," DeBerry says. "When you live out what you say you believe in, in front of a family that's hopeless, and you say you have hope, it transfers."
When healthy mentoring relationships are formed, everyone benefits. A Denver couple, Pat Long and her husband, Jim, became mentors six years ago. Active at the Greenwood Community Church, the couple teamed with two other women from their Bible study to mentor a young single mom. The woman had a daughter who was 8 years old at that time. Both had been abused at the home where they were living. When they fled that situation, they became homeless.
"Our expectation was we'll go in, get her into housing, do the six or eight meetings, and that would be it," says Long, a retired schoolteacher.