Family Promise of Greater Phoenix
Supports families and their pets experiencing homelessness with shelter, food, clothing and resources to regain self-sufficiency. Learn more about becoming a host congregation for overnight lodging or its annual Cardboard City fundraiser Oct. 17.
What one innkeeper was able to do for Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem, local faith communities do every week: offer lodging to families who seek it.
Their sleeping quarters aren’t with the animals — although if they do have pets, there’s a dedicated spot for the furry family members — but they are with each other on air mattresses in private, sometimes makeshift rooms at the church or synagogue. A warm dinner, dessert and an evening of fellowship are also included.
“It was not a bad experience for them,” Syri Gerstner said of her girls, who were ages 6 and 8 when they, alongside Sparkle, their chiweenie dog, experienced homelessness. They felt like each night at a local church was a campout. “What they left here with was a family, camaraderie and pure, unadulterated love.”
The hurdle of personal embarrassment is a bit harder for parents to conquer when they find themselves without a permanent roof over their heads. Gerstner, a Catholic, had support from the get-go. Even a police officer who came on a welfare check when she learned she would lose her house told her, “You’ll be fine. You’re too strong.”
She said there are no words to describe what it meant to be able to keep her family together. That was only possible because a phone call to 2-1-1, the Grand Canyon State’s Community Information and Referral Services hotline, connected her to Family Promise of Greater Phoenix.
It’s part of a nationwide organization with 189 affiliates in nearly every state relying on faithful partnerships with area churches to host overnight families experiencing homelessness. Ted Taylor, director for Family Promise of Greater Phoenix, sees the organization as a way for believers to fulfill their call to serve, particularly the least among us.
“What the Lord created here was a clear way to do that,” Taylor said.
Three Catholic parishes currently partner with Family Promise of Greater Phoenix and the agency could always use more. All of them hosted this summer.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help and St. Patrick, both in Scottsdale, served as overnight hosts for two consecutive weeks. It can take several dozen volunteers with some specializing in meal preparation, others helping with setup or laundering of bed linens, two at a time staying overnight with the families plus a constant flow of evening visitors who show up to play with the children or provide companionship to the parents.
“It’s a way for our community to connect a little bit to the issue of homelessness, still within the comfort of our own neighborhood because the families come to us,” Curt Hench, social justice and outreach associate at St. Patrick Parish told The Catholic Sun days prior to hosting Family Promise families for the fourth time in three years.
A shuttle driver from Family Promise drops off the families after 5 p.m. and picks them up the next morning by 5:30 sharp. Gerstner’s time sleeping at churches only lasted a week. After that, they moved to some on-site apartments at Family Promise reserved for two families at a time who are employed and transitioning out of homelessness.
The trio spent two months with Family Promise — an average stay is 47 days — and just over two years homeless. All the while Gerstner managed to hold down two full-time jobs, put in “sweat equity” on her own Habitat for Humanity home that the family moved into in May — five days after Gerstner earned a bachelor’s degree — and even volunteered at an organization that packs meals for those malnourished worldwide.
“The motivation is to never be homeless again … to be better for your children so it never happens to them,” Gerstner said.
Parishioners at St. Patrick are increasing their efforts to support such members of the greater community. A yearlong parish initiative is aimed at better connecting Catholics to the struggles faced by those without a home. A series of mission talks, especially this coming Advent, alongside opportunities to support local ministries that serve homeless guests are on tap.
“Hopefully it will lead to some pretty strong justice work,” Hench said.
All 4,517 registered families are invited to a community potluck Aug. 8, the final night that guests from Family Promise are staying at the parish. Hench said the idea is to remind the families that they’re loved and supported. It’s also meant as a thank you for allowing everyone to spend time together.
Family Promise of Greater Phoenix has served 59 families so far this year, but gets an average of 170 phone calls each month from families seeking temporary shelter. Call load spikes as high as 200 with extreme temperatures in the summer and in January.
Gerstner now works for Family Promise. She’s an aftercare coach for families who graduated from the program and are transitioning back to normal life. Gerstner started her job two years to the day that she became homeless herself.
Overcoming it isn’t easy, Gerstner said, “but I want to be their cheerleader, their hope.”
She credited the encouragement of Family Promise staff, which includes a social worker and a director who don’t let the parents underestimate their own power. Gerstner described Family Promise as “your backbone when you don’t have one” and compared it to a cocoon that can lead to a whole new life. As long as there are enough faith communities willing to support the families.