Congregations Join In Community-Wide Effort to Fight Homelessness
NEWINGTON – A chance meeting launched a homelessness assistance program 30 years ago. Another chance meeting three years ago helped bring that program to Church of Christ in Newington and other New Britain area churches. In March, Family Promise of Central Connecticut served its first family.
Family Promise is a nation-wide non-profit organization that helps families experiencing homelessness reach sustainable independence through the efforts of community organizations and volunteers. Host organizations provide meals, shelter, and fellowship for families for a week at a time while trained professionals provide individual case management to help family members find employment, housing, transportation, and other needs.
Family Promise began in the 1980's when founder Karen Olsen met a homeless woman in New York, bought her a sandwich, and listened to her story. That chance meeting led Olsen to begin finding ways to help people experiencing homelessness.
In 2013, Dr. Kara Russell visited a friend in Boston who was working with Family Promise. Back home in Connecticut, Russell searched for a chapter in state and found that Connecticut was one of 4 states that did not have a Family Promise affiliate. She contacted Family Promise to find out how to start one.
At an informational meeting of area church leaders, Russell was sitting next to Rev. Melanie Enfield, pastor of the Church of Christ, Congregational in Newington. At one point, Rev. Enfield leaned toward Russell and said, "We could totally do this." Russell did not know Enfield, but that chance meeting began a relationship that grew and later helped kick start Family Promise of Central Connecticut.
Russell, who now heads the affiliate's Board of Directors and is the Assistant to the Pastor for Youth and Outreach at Newington, says much of the upfront work in organizing the CT affiliate was in raising morning and training people to work with the families. Family Promise of Central Connecticut has only two paid staff: an Executive Director and a part-time social work, who both work with the families during the day to help with their case management.
Fundraising provided cots for the host congregations, as well as money for organizing and coordinating the transportation. Russell says a grant providing enough funding for a 15 passenger van to help with daily transportation. The organization initially set up a GoFundMe campaign and now holds two annual events: a Walk-Away event in the fall and "Home Sweet Home," a desert and silent auction in the Spring. Funds are also received from the interfaith community in and around New Britain.
Today, Family Promise of Central Connecticut consists of 10 congregations in the New Britain area. The "Hub" of the program is the Day Center located in downtown New Britain. Churches, like Newington, provide night time sleeping quarters and a family-style meal where volunteers sit and dine with the families rather than serve them. The volunteers provide a continental breakfast in the morning and pack lunches for the families before transporting them back to the day center. Each congregation hosts the families for a week, and then the families move to another host church.
Hosting the families in need has had a positive impact on the congregations themselves. Rev. Enfield says it’s a way to turn prayer into practice.
"Being involved with Family Promise has energized our congregation to put its faith in action," said Enfield. "While we are always praying and thinking about people experiencing homelessness this program allows us to bring the gospel message alive."
But the impact reaches further than just individual churches. Coordinating with 10 congregations to provide continuous support for the families takes communication and commitment to a common goal. This has also made a difference in church life in Newington, says Enfield.
"The interfaith aspect of this program strengthens our interconnectedness with other congregations and empowers us to do more than we think we can."