Maybe you’ve noticed the red house with the funky windows in the downtown Natick area and wondered what its signage—Family Promise Metrowest (FPM)— means, exactly.
Hope and safety are what FPM means to families who are experiencing homelessness, yet do not qualify for emergency state shelter. Maybe they’re “over income” by state standards but still fell behind on rent, and were evicted. Maybe they’ve been doubling up with family or friends, and thus aren’t technically considered homeless, so do not qualify for state aid. Whatever the reason, when families are experiencing a housing crisis an FPM program might be the right fit for them.
The signature red building, which made the seismic change last summer from a day center to a shelter that can now house up to three families at a time, could be these families’ temporary place to land.
Between the completion of the building’s major renovations and the hiring of a new executive director, Danielle Conti, the staff of FMP decided a celebration was in order. So the charitable organization hosted an Open House last week, a rare opportunity for community members to tour the facility and meet staff and volunteers. The resident families had recently achieved their goals of transitioning to permanent housing, so neither their privacy nor peace were compromised by the event.
Here are some pics of the renovated space:
Families have access to a large, shared kitchen. At dinner, all gather in a spacious multi-purpose room where volunteers provide the main meal as well as companionship. Family Promise Metrowest has been a presence in Natick since 2008. The non-profit partners with religious and spiritual congregations and for over 10 years used a rotation model to house families among 19 area organizations. Families would live for one week at one congregation, typically in large basement rooms, one per family, plus one room for overnight volunteers. At the end of the week, families would move on to the next host.
The Shelter Program’s congregation rotation model no longer worked once COVID hit, and FPM had to place families into hotels. It was a short-term solution at odds with the community-driven mission of FPM, and one that forced a reckoning about how core operations should run going forward. During the pandemic, “We weighed all the options, talked to the families, talked to the congregations,” Amanda Elkin said. Those conversations led to a decision to make big changes. The red house would transition from a day center model and become a shelter.
Back when Family Promise started in Natick in 2009, “we needed the congregations and the space they could give us to get Family Promise off the ground. Without tons of very committed volunteers, making food and all of that, we wouldn’t have been able to get the organization started. But COVID shut that down,” Elkin said.
In a 2021 video address, then executive director Sue Crossley said, “We came to the realization that having a shelter site where families live rather than rotating to the different congregations really made the most sense for everyone.”
Congregations are still involved and volunteering. But now instead of volunteers helping out at congregations, they go to the shelter to play with the kids, help with meal prep, and provide dinnertime companionship.
In addition to the Shelter program, FPM offers a SAIL Program that supports families as they transition from the shelter back into permanent housing; and a LIFE Program, which helps families facing eviction remain in safe housing. Between the three programs, FPM last year served 64 families, including 101 children.
There are a couple hundred Family Promises throughout the country. Many of them run as “static sites,” which is the model FPM decided that they were now in a financial position to become. In 2009, the organization worked with a budget of $250k. After almost 15 years of courting donor partners from big local corporations to kids who donate their lemonade stand money, they’re now operating on a $1.2 million annual budget, money that has bought them the freedom to evolve how they provide services.
Families often describe the Shelter program as a lifeline. They do not describe the program as easy. Expectations are high. Families must be open to and accept long-term, intensive coaching that helps identify the root causes of their housing crisis as they set goals and work hard with a vision for their future. Coaches help with everything from applications for rental assistance, to bringing in specialists to help families improve life skills, to accessing employment opportunities.
The average number of days in the Shelter program is 146. During that time families focus on personal savings goals, repairing credit scores, and securing safe and affordable daycare of after-school care for their kids.
The ultimate goal of all three programs (Shelter, SAIL, and LIFE) is for families to move on to permanent, independent housing. 89% of families in 2021 achieved that goal, while 7% moved into a shared housing arrangement and 4% moved into transitional housing.
Staff members and volunteers agree that much is given, much is received, and there is much to be thankful for. Families concur, but it’s the small things that can bring them to tears. A Thanksgiving dinner basket. A gift card for a child who needs winter boots. A few words of encouragement on a downer of a day. The basket means their kids get a festive holiday, just like their classmates. The boots mean feet stay dry. Kindness gets paid forward, and a later squabble quickly de-escalates from intense to resolved.
Such is the power of community care.
Save the date—April 30: Walk to End Homelessness
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