“At any given day, any given moment, you could lose any and everything,” said Sandy Torres as she sat in the day center of Family Promise.
Her bright-eyed, 2-year-old daughter Sofia joined the conversation, insisting that her mom put a diaper on the pearl-wearing doll she toted.
As Torres helped her daughter, she explained how she, her partner and two children moved to Harrisburg from Massachusetts to be closer to extended family. The family moved in with Torres’s mother, but the landlord said that there were too many people living in the apartment, and Torres had to move out. They faced homelessness.
A Google search put her in contact with Family Promise.
Located on Erford Road in Camp Hill, Family Promise of Harrisburg Capital Region is a “community response to homelessness,” said Executive Director Lissette Gonzalez.
It catches families at the point of becoming homeless.
“That one little pebble throw into their life—that derails something, and ripples out into every other component of their lives,” Gonzalez said.
The organization consists of a day center that serves as “mission central” for intensive case management for families and 14 host congregations, which house and feed them. Families travel from the churches back to the day center to shower, get to school, leave for work, or meet with their social worker.
Family Promise works with families to “try to eliminate unnecessary barriers” to their self-sufficiency, Gonzalez said. Those barriers may include employment, transportation or childcare. The organization also provides an alternate perspective, talking through problems with families.
“Sometimes, you are so far in, you can’t see the outside,” Gonzalez said.
Charity Washington knows all about being so far in.
She left an abusive relationship, lost her job, and found herself and her three children teetering on homelessness.
“I felt like a total failure,” she said.
Washington stayed in hotels and with a relative, and then the cash got low. She called every help line she could find, and all the shelters were full. Like Torres, she found Family Promise through a Google search.
“God had other plans for me,” she said. “I’m so glad He put me in Family Promise.”
Family Promise offers relief from many of the everyday expenses of life like toiletries, diapers, food and rent, so that participants can focus on saving money. Participants must set aside 80 percent of their income while in the program.
Saving is important because most Family Promise families lack the support resources needed to get out of a financial jam.
“All it takes is for one thing to derail itself for everything else to spiral out of control,” Gonzalez said. “Then families find themselves using rent money for car repairs or deciding between food and bills.”
According to Gonzalez, Family Promise is beginning to expand to include diversion—reaching people before they become homeless, thus diverting them out of the system. Families receive the same assistance and support as families in the regular program, just earlier.
After two months, Washington is working and renting her own place.
“It’s a beautiful home,” she said. “Everybody’s happy.”
On average, families spend 74 days in the program and, last year, 18 families, including 23 adults and 34 children, came through it. Gonzalez said that success is defined by participants finding safe and secure housing and remaining in a sustainable situation.
Local host congregations help support participants while they work towards the goal of self-sufficiency. Congregation volunteers drive families, in the Family Promise van, to and from the day center, provide meals and offer a place to stay each night.
In the fellowship hall at Mechanicsburg Brethren in Christ Church, Lauren Cook heated up broccoli and chicken that she prepared for Torres and her children, the only family in the program that week. Her children and Torres’s 6-year-old son ran through the hall laughing and plotting fun.
“What struck me is that it’s easy to live in your bubble—your own bills, your own little struggles,” Cook said.
Driving this home was the occasion when her son’s classmate was part of a family in the program.
She’s been serving with Family Promise for about three years and has always felt a pull to help those who are struggling. She said that she hoped that, if she and her family found themselves in a similar situation, there would be people willing to help.
“It’s an enjoyable way to serve,” she said. “It’s so nice to meet so many different people and hear their stories.”
While only Christian congregations currently host, Gonzalez said she would embrace other religious and nonreligious organizations as hosts.
“All they need to host is space and volunteers,” she said.
Back at the day center, Torres patiently finished showing her daughter how to diaper her doll. The child responded with an enthusiastic, “It’s pretty mommy!”
Asked what people should know about those who experience homelessness, Torres paused a moment before answering.
“That it could be anyone,” she said.
To learn more about or volunteer at Family Promise of Harrisburg Capital Region, call 717-737-1100 or visit www.familypromisehcr.org.
Names in this story have been changed to protect Family Promise participants’ anonymity.