By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
CHESTER -- A tangible way to help families in crisis is finally materializing with the announcement that Chester Congregational Baptist Church will stand alongside three sister churches as part of a regional family homeless shelter that will operate like a moveable feast.
Family Promise of Greater Rockingham County is modeled after a national program, the successful Interfaith Hospitality Network, which relies on a consortium of churches and synagogues to provide services for a fixed number of homeless families on a rotating basis.
Unlike traditional homeless shelters which mainly provide overnight housing, IHN emphasizes solutions through outreach, with the goal of stabilizing each family in need, no matter what pieces of their puzzling situation are jumbled.
Although a minimum of 10 churches are needed to make it work, group president Melanie Nesheim is confident that the timing is finally right for this much-needed shelter program to gel.
“There’s a shelter in Manchester, but you have to be at least 18 to go there. There is no place for a family with children to go,” said Nesheim.
“And while you don’t see homeless families sitting on park benches or standing on street corners, we know they’re out there, living in their cars or temporarily on someone’s living room floor.”
Part of the legwork has included assessing the need for the shelter, which will serve families in a 20-mile patch of southern Rockingham county, including Atkinson, Auburn, Chester, Danville, Derry, Hampstead, Kingston, Londonderry, Newton, Pelham, Plaistow, Salem, Sandown, and Windham.
“In May we did a survey, contacting the various school districts in the county, and they came up with 78 homeless families,” said Nesheim.
“Derry and Salem qualified their statistics by saying that they know there are more than the ones they can document, but many families in crisis are afraid for the school to know their situation, for fear their children will be taken away from them.”
The other churches on board are St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Hampstead, Triumphant Cross Lutheran Church in Salem and Calvary Bible Church in Derry.
The program is based on a model that launched 24 years ago in New Jersey and now has outposts across the country.
A minimum of 10 churches commit to being host congregations and each church takes a turn four times a year for a week at a time, converting Sunday school space into sleeping quarters for up to five families, said Nesheim, who would like to identify 13 congregations.
For one week the home church provides a “day center” with resources to help families find permanent housing or jobs. And although the families move between churches, the children are settled in one particular school, which provides stability. Volunteers provide meals, companionship and in some cases, even become mentors, depending on their occupations or area of expertise.
This will be the second such shelter network in Rockingham County. Seacoast Family Promise has been in place for seven years. Hillsborough County is home to the Greater Nashua Interfaith Hospitality Network Inc. at Anne-Marie House, which began as a moving shelter, but settled into a permanent space in Hudson five years ago.
Seacoast Family Promise director Pati Frew-Waters said their program has assisted 105 families, of which 84 have successfully found permanent homes, an 80 percent success rate.
“People in crisis don’t have time to wait, so we don’t have a waiting list. But one of the things that makes this program successful is that, through our intake process, we have families that are willing to do the work needed to stabilize – which includes intense family planning and budget-setting, job searching — whatever their needs are,” said Frew-Waters.
She said that more families than ever are struggling economically. But those who have been through the program are not easy to peg.
“Yes, it’s the economy. But we forget about people who’ve had catastrophic illnesses — we’ve had cancer survivors who come through because of medical expenses, or loss of homes to fires. We’ve seen quite a few families that are young parents who’ve aged out of the foster care system — there’s not catchment for those children once they turn 18, and they have no family support system to fall back on,” said Frew-Waters.
The other thing that makes IHN succeed where traditional shelters fall short is that it’s a cost-effective model — her annual operating budget is $170,000.
“We leverage $3 for every $1 spent, if you consider in-kind donations. We don’t need an overnight staff or a building. We are local people in a local community solving local problems.
And although homelessness may be a national problem, it can’t be solved on a large scale.
We have post-program services which help us keep tabs on our families, which is how we know that once they leave us, they feel part of this community,” Frew-Waters said.
“In fact, we were making some calls this week to make sure our families were all right for the holiday, and I had one woman say that they didn’t need anything at all — but if anyone needed a place to eat Thanksgiving dinner, they had room,” Frew-Waters said.
“That’s the kind of success we’re striving for.”
Rev. Beverly Lindsey, pastor of the Chester church, said their commitment to this program did not come casually.
“We’ve been talking about it for a while and put it to a congregational vote over the weekend. I actually wanted to make sure everyone understood that it’s a real commitment,” Lindsey said.
The need for such a service has been evident for years, said Lindsey. A decade ago there was momentum to build a permanent shelter in Derry, Haven of Hope. But the town was never able to embrace the plan, which eventually lost momentum in 2006 after several attempts at site approvals were shot down by councilors.
Lindsey said she is proud of her congregation for standing up and doing something that will make a real difference.
“We’re going to keep advocating for changes that will make this kind of outreach unnecessary in the future.
Churches have always been there as a stopgap measure, but as people of faith, we also have to use our voices to say, ‘enough!’ It’s time to hear the needs of the people, and do what it takes to help them have a good life.”