Kenyal Braswell was scared. She and her three young sons under the age of three were homeless, with nowhere to go, following a divorce. Then a local assistance agency referred her to a brand new program, Family Promise of Davie County, and suddenly there was hope.
Established in September 2017, Family Promise of Davie County (FPDC) serves families with children who are experiencing homelessness. Its core program is the Interfaith Hospitality Network or Shelter Program, as it is referred to locally, which is made up of over 600 volunteers and 23 faith groups across the county. Once families apply and have been accepted into the program, they stay at a host congregation for one week at a time before moving to the next church. Volunteers provide families with hospitality and meals.
During the day families are shuttled to the day center where they have access to Wi-Fi, computers, telephones, showers, and laundry facilities. Families receive assistance in finding housing, job skills training, financial management courses, and connection with other local resources.
FPDC Executive Director Lisa Foster remembers well her first meeting with Braswell. “I don’t know who was more nervous, her or me,” Foster said with a smile. “Kenyal and her sons were our first family and I was the only staff member. We learned so much together about how to do this, what works for people, and what doesn’t. Her youngest boys took their first steps at one of our host congregations and now they are in pre-k. Her oldest will be starting kindergarten next year which just seems crazy. It’s been really cool becoming a part of her family.”
After 51 days in the program, Braswell and her sons graduated and transitioned into their own home. She continued to receive support for the first year through the Fresh Start program which provides families with resources for financial assistance, furniture, household goods, and mentoring so that they start off on the right foot.
“It can be really hard for families transitioning out of homelessness to maintain their housing in the first year,” Foster said. “That’s why we provide our continued support and really try to help our families understand what resources are available to them and how to advocate for themselves so that they can continue to provide for their families.”
Grateful for that support, Braswell is now one of the program’s biggest advocates. “There is no better family than Family Promise. I’ve come to look at every volunteer and every staff person as an extension of my family.”
Braswell is one of the many success stories Foster has had the joy of witnessing. Over the past three years, 20 families have graduated from the shelter program. An additional 72 families received financial assistance through the Help Us Move In (HUMI) program which allows FPDC to further prevent and end family homelessness by paying past-due rent, rent deposits, and first month’s rent. Foster is proud of the fact that 90% of the families enrolled in the shelter program graduate and are still self-sustaining a year later.
But FPDC wanted to assist additional families before they become homeless. “I know that sounds a little counterintuitive for a shelter program, but we know that no matter how hospitable our staff, volunteers and host congregations are, being in a shelter is still traumatic for families, both kids and adults. If we can help families not have to enter into our shelter program but still maintain safe housing and get into permanent housing, then that is the best-case scenario and saves our shelter beds for those who truly have nowhere else to go. We want to do whatever we can to keep kids together with their families but out of the shelter system.”
According to data from the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), at least 30 percent of households seeking shelter can successfully remain in or be placed in housing. And diversion costs are significantly less than the cost of shelter, rapid rehousing, or transitional housing.
At last year’s Family Promise National Convention, Foster attended a session about shelter diversion strategies.“It sounded really great but you have to have the funding to make it happen, which we didn’t have, so we kind of put a pin in it as something to look into if the funding became available.”
When Foster received a notice from Family Promise about a funding partnership with Synchrony, a leading consumer financial services company, to pilot a shelter diversion initiative aimed to help families combat homelessness she quickly applied.
The Synchrony Foundation had committed $1.2 million to support ten Family Promise affiliates around the country. Each affiliate would receive virtual shelter diversion training and $50,000 in funding, most of which will be used to directly help struggling families, including assistance with security and utility deposits, rental arrears, transportation, groceries, and more. At the conclusion of the year-long pilot, Family Promise would develop best practices to roll out to affiliates across the country.
“The board, staff, and I saw it as the answer to our funding issue. We had no idea if we would be selected but it was certainly worth a try.”
The effort paid off. Family Promise of Davie County was one of the 10 Family Promise affiliates chosen to participate in Family Promise’s A Future Begins at Home prevention and stabilization housing initiative. The others are Butler County (OH), South Bay (CA), Lawrence (KS), Greater Orlando (FL), Hawaii (HI), Northern New Castle County (DE), Greater Indianapolis (IN), Greater Concord (NH), South Sarasota County (FL).
“Synchrony is proud to partner with Family Promise to serve struggling families and children, especially in this time of crisis,” said Denise Yap, Synchrony senior vice president and corporate citizenship leader, in an announcement. “This shelter diversion initiative will help prevent homelessness and equip families with the tools they need to achieve stability in their lives.”
“During this unprecedented time, Family Promise’s holistic approach to the crisis of family homelessness includes prevention, shelter, and stabilization,” says Claas Ehlers, Family Promise CEO. “While providing shelter has always been a Family Promise priority, it is much more effective to prevent homelessness in the first place. We are thrilled to be partnering with Synchrony on this pioneering shelter diversion initiative. A national diversion program will reduce the number of families entering the shelter system, easing the strain on the program and reducing waiting lists, benefitting both the families served and the communities in which they live.”
“I was sort of shocked when I got the news that our affiliate was selected to be part of this pilot program,” exclaimed Foster “There are over 200 Family Promise affiliates across the country and the majority have been around much longer than we have. All that our affiliate has been able to accomplish in under 3 years is incredible and a huge testament to the Davie County community, our volunteers, our staff, and board members.”
“Davie County residents and businesses have always stepped up to the plate to help those in need,” said FPDC Board Chair Lee Rollins. “FPDC is unique in that it will turn $1 in contributions and leverage it to make $3 of impact, a great investment that is a win-win!”
Foster and Valerie Werbeck, family services coordinator, have completed the virtual shelter diversion training and hope that FPDC can launch the new program later this month. They are still learning the ins and outs of the program but are excited about the flexibility of the funds to help divert families from the shelter system.
Foster is excited about the potential this program represents for helping families facing homelessness. “Family Promise National is piloting this program to learn if diversion really works. It sounds great to keep families out of shelters and to get them into housing quickly but will they be able to keep that housing? We know that 90% of the families who complete our shelter program are still sustaining their housing a year later. Will that be the same with the diversion program?”
“It’s really cool that we will be part of this national learning program. We will be participating alongside LA County which is kind of crazy when you compare it to little Davie County. We will be helping to find out what works across the country in both big cities and small rural areas. There will be lots of opportunities to learn about best practices in general and I’m proud that Davie County is going to be a part of it.”
For more information about Synchrony visit synchrony.com.