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Family Promise of Berks County Facing Challenges, New Opportunities

by Susan Shelly

Feb 16, 2021

Family Promise of Berks County is rolling out a new model for how it provides housing for families and individuals looking to get back on their feet and is looking to community members for help.

The agency has assisted hundreds of local families and individuals during its nearly 15 years in operation, helping those experiencing homelessness to find stability, services, jobs, and secure housing.

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit was forced to change both the way it serves clients and how it seeks help from community partners.

“We’ve had to rethink the way we approach the overnight piece for our shelter clients,” said Elise Chesson, Family Promise’s executive director.

Before the pandemic, the agency partnered Berks County congregations that hosted families within their places of worship, providing safe space, meals, and companionship. Families stayed with each congregation for a week and then rotated to another location. When places of worship shut down last March, however, the long-used rotational housing model was no longer feasible.

That forced Chesson and Family Promise staff and board members to re-examine their operations and explore new ways to keep community members working together to support the program while continuing to help individuals and families.

The apartment-shelter model

After much consideration, the agency, which assists families and unaccompanied youth who need help with housing or rent, decided to direct its operations toward a static, apartment-shelter project model, which is geared toward speeding up the attainment of permanent housing for clients. The model has been used successfully by an Indianapolis-based affiliate of Family Promise National, an organization founded in 1986 in New Jersey.

The apartment-shelter model increases stability for families and calls on those same partnering congregations and community members to offer other forms of help, Chesson said.

“We must continue with our community partnerships, as we rely on our loyal volunteers to help with a variety of needs,” Chesson said.

Volunteers will continue to provide supplies, meals or grocery gift cards, household items, cleaning supplies and toiletries. They also can help with job applications, tutoring, providing financial counseling, housing searches or offering other services.

“The work we do at Family Promise is more important than it’s ever been because our community has seen such an increase in need,” Chesson said. “We’re really looking for continued and increased community involvement to keep those we serve moving forward.”

While Family Promise has secured several apartments and is transitioning to the apartment shelter model, more housing is needed. Housing stock is in short supply, Chesson explained, and locating suitable, livable apartments for Family Promise clients has been challenging.

Renting apartments to Family Promise clients is a winning proposition for landlords, Chesson said, because they can be assured they are renting to families that have the support of an agency for case management, financial assistance, budget counseling and other services.

Family Promise staff and board members are hopeful some area landlords will be willing to form partnerships with the agency, and are looking to community members, including individuals, landlords, faith communities, businesses, nonprofits and others, to seek creative solutions to the housing insecurity so many are facing.

“We know homelessness is a problem throughout this county,” Chesson said. “It affects people of all ages and is due to all kinds of circumstances. We need the community to brainstorm along with us as we seek to solve some of these deeper problems. There have got to be people in Berks County willing to partner on housing solutions.”

Agency returns $3 to community for every $1 invested

Family Promise has been fortunate enough to secure grants and will be launching its apartment shelter initiative in the coming weeks. Donations and sponsorships from individuals, private and public foundations, corporations, governmental agencies and civic organizations are used for property rentals and expenses related to providing these services.

The Family Promise model is structured to develop public/private partnerships and tailored to operate in an economically sound and efficient manner. For every dollar invested, Family Promise returns an average of $3 in donated goods and services. In addition to providing housing for families, the organization operates a U-Turn Program that serves at-risk youth and a rent and utility assistance program for households facing evictions.

“We have a good operational model, and we are secure as an agency,” Chesson said. “Our biggest problem is finding housing for our clients, and that’s why we are coming to the community for help.”

Anyone who wants to help, donate or knows of a property for rent can contact Chesson at [email protected] or call her at 610-373-3323. Volunteers can also connect with Deborah Rhodes who serves as the Volunteer & Community Engagement Coordinator via email at [email protected] The organization is seeking donations that support their programs, partnerships with landlords, volunteers and more. To learn how you can help visit www.FamilyPromiseOfBerks.org.

 

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