Faith Community Brings Help for Homeless Families

Rochester, NY – A Rochester area program has had impressive results in helping homeless families get back on their feet. The Rochester Interfaith Hospitality Network, or RAIHN (RAIN), has served over 200 families since opening six years ago. WXXI's Jeanne Fisher introduces us to some of the people who volunteer with RAIHN and some of those who have gone through the program.

JEANNE FISHER: When we hear the word "homeless," a lot of us think of dirty, mentally ill people who push shopping carts, or who sit on street corners holding cardboard signs that say "will work for food." Amanda is a single mother of three. She and her family don't fit that stereotype image, but without RAIHN, they would be homeless.

AMANDA: People put a stigma on what homeless really is, and nobody thinks that it's families that are clean and, you know, not what you see on the street, it's normal people - hey, we're clean, we're wearing clean clothes every day, but we're homeless.

JEANNE FISHER: Eight years ago, a group of faith leaders from different congregations in Monroe County came together to looks for solutions to the growing problem of homelessness in Rochester. They learned that families now make up 40 percent of the homeless population, and that one out of every four homeless person is a child. And here in Rochester, there are sometimes more than 300 homeless families.

So these congregations decided to join with the National Interfaith Hospitality Network, a charter group with over 138 chapters in 30 states. Nancy Elliott is the Director of the Rochester Area Interfaith Hospitality Network.

NANCY ELLIOTT: Up to five, six hundred people on any given night are homeless in Rochester. This network of programs across the country used faith communities to provide a safe place for homeless families to be while they got their situation under control. We've had over 200 families now come through the program, and we've been able to give a safe haven to those families.

JEANNE FISHER: Amanda and her children Jamar, Elijah and Brianna were living in a small apartment in Rochester. Amanda was receiving Social Services assistance to attend Monroe Community College and earn a degree in Legal Technology, while working part time in accounting. But an unexpected tragedy changed all of their lives last year.

AMANDA: Elijah's godfather was killed in my house, so I was trying to overcome that, and it just got too much for me to take on at that time. And May or June of last year our apartment was condemned. We did go to a shelter through DSS, and they gave me a listing of about five apartments that I had to choose from, in bad areas or out of my price range. We were then able to stay with my sister for about six months.

JEANNE FISHER: Amanda learned about RAIHN from a social worker, called the center on Meigs Street, and was immediately accepted into the program. RAIHN families are housed at 15 different churches and synagogues around Monroe County. They move weekly from one host faith community to the next, usually spending four to six weeks in the program. Sunday school classrooms become bedrooms and hospitality rooms, and breakfast and dinner are provided by the host congregation.

Counseling services are offered at the Day Center on Meigs Street, where the guest families can receive mail, meet the school buses, do laundry, bathe, and receive assistance with jobs and housing. And all of this is accomplished, for the most part, by the efforts of more than 1600 trained volunteers who cook, serve, clean and spend the night with families like Amanda's.

AMANDA: I was very supported by all the volunteers, and they've been great with the kids and to myself.

MARTHA EGGERS: We don't know the private backgrounds of the families. We know if there are dietary restrictions, if there are some health issues. But why they're in the program, we don't know. And if a guest chooses to share some things with us, we will listen, but we don't counsel them.

JEANNE FISHER: Martha Eggers has been a RAIHN volunteer at First Universalist Church in Rochester, since the beginning of the program. She is now the lead volunteer coordinator for her church and for St. Mary's Catholic Church, and she participates in nearly every rotation at First Universalist, cooking and greeting the guest families.

Martha says she was skeptical at first, but when she learned about the tremendous need for this service in Rochester she became deeply committed, and receives great joy from working with the families

MARTHA EGGERS: A father and a mother and two daughters were in the program and one of the daughters was having a birthday while they were staying with us. And the father was very excited about this, and he asked us if he could make and serve the meal the next night for his daughter's birthday. And it just showed birthdays don't wait, and here we could provide a safe space for him and his family to celebrate together.

JEANNE FISHER: The Rochester Area Interfaith Hospitality Network is one of the few programs in Monroe County that allows families to stay together. RAIHN Director Nancy Elliott says that there are not enough beds in the area to meet the needs of these homeless families.

NANCY ELLIOTT: So we play an important role in Rochester, in that we can have families that have kind of come to the end of their resources and we can keep them together, where other shelters might need to split up the males and the females, we can keep families together.

JEANNE FISHER: While her family were guests of the RAIHN program, Amanda's children were able to stay in school and all of them made and stayed on the honor roll then entire time. And her oldest son Jamar was able to attend the Eastman Community Music program.

JAMAR: The church we went to, I got to play the piano so that was actually kinda good. And RAIHN did actually kinda save us. We would have to be on the street.

JEANNE FISHER: Amanda and her children are the 200th family to graduate from the RAIHN program. They now have a new apartment, not far from their old one, so the kids can attend the same school. And even though they lost all their belongings, they have new furniture thanks to the generosity of the host congregations.

AMANDA: All the churches came together, by the time we moved in we had a living room set, each of the kids had a bed. I myself, they gave me a whole bedroom set, dishes, they just helped out in so many different ways.

JEANNE FISHER: Amanda is still receiving social assistance while she looks for a job. She'd like to return to college and finish her degree, but that is proving to be a challenge.

AMANDA: The Department of Social Services put us through they just make trying to get any type of assistance from them such a struggle, and I only need two more semesters in order to get my Associates Degree in Legal Technology. And they told me no, and now I have to start everything all over again, I have to start at ground zero, and they're not allowing me to go back to school.

JEANNE FISHER: RAIHN Director Nancy Elliott continues to work with Amanda to overcome the red tape involved with finishing her degree. She, and everyone involved with the program, are proud of the fact that over 200 adults have found employment through RAIHN, and 96 percent of the guest families remain out of homelessness.

NANCY ELLIOTT: We're extremely excited when one of our families graduates, and we provide support and follow them for at least a year after they graduate from the program. Just staying in touch, making sure things are going forward so that they don't get hung up and have that risk of becoming homeless again.

JEANNE FISHER: The Rochester Interfaith Hospitality Network has been recognized as a model of social justice and advocacy by Social Service Providers across the community. Recently RAIHN received the Greater Rochester Community of Churches Community Award on June 1st.

Thirty six faith congregations contributed to RAIHN last year, and the program received financial support from the 56th New York State Senate District, and the City of Rochester. RAIHN is also a United Way Agency.

The program works with soup kitchens, food cupboards, emergency shelters and medical clinics in Monroe County to extend their reach beyond just the beds and services they can provide, and to continue the commitment to keeping families together during and after homelessness.