[Hpn] Interfaith Hospitality Network Turns Churches Into Shelters For Homeless Families!

William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Sat, 22 May 2004 06:11:14 -0400

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Interfaith program shelters homeless in churches

Interfaith Hospitality Network turns churches into shelters for homeless

Dana Clark Felty



Ursula Robinson left New York in a U-Haul filled with everything she owned,
hoping for a better, simpler life down South.
The single mom had just enough money to move the family into a rental home
she thought was waiting for them in Savannah.
But when she arrived with her six children, the landlord reneged.
Just like that, a family of limited means became homeless.
Interfaith Hospitality Network, a local nonprofit organization, sees similar
situations dozens of times a year.
Interfaith's mission is to keep families like the Robinson's together in a
spiritual circle of support.

Ursula Robinson, left, shows off her new home to Kesha Carter-Gibson,
director of Interfaith Hospitality Network. Steve Bisson Savannah Morning
Though not religiously affiliated, Interfaith is a nonprofit, private
organization that provides emergency shelter in 11 local churches for
families with children. Other churches provide donations and support to
"It's a huge collaborative of faith communities who are working together,"
said Helen P. Bradley, the Interfaith's board chair. "Many churches have
missions where they assist people who are poor and needy in other countries,
but this is an opportunity to help those in our own neighborhoods who are
going through hard times."
During the daytime, Interfaith shuttles its "guests" to school, work,
recreation or to the program's headquarters on W. 32nd Street.
Of Savannah's programs for the homeless, Interfaith has the smallest
capacity. The day center and church network can only shelter three families
at a time.
But Interfaith is the only emergency program that provides space for
families to stay during the day.
At night, the program doesn't separate older children from their parents.
For example, boys over 13 are allowed to stay with their mothers, unlike
other programs.
"A lot of our focus is to provide our services in a way that the children
aren't as affected by their current circumstances," said Director Kesha
Gibson-Carter. Keeping the family together is key.
Becoming homeless can come quickly through a few poor choices or some
"With the families we serve, they either never had a safety net or they've
cut holes in it," Gibson-Carter said.
'A calling'
Often, it is the children who pay the price.
Over the past decade, families with children were among the fastest growing
segments of the homeless population.
Forty percent of the homeless population in Savannah is made up of women and
children, according to the local Economic Opportunity Authority.
In 2003, the Interfaith Hospitality Network served 74 people, including 21
families and 59 children.
Nearly half of those children were under age 5.
In addition to providing emergency housing, Interfaith works to get families
into permanent housing.
In the last year, just over half the families Interfaith served found
independent permanent housing.
Six families moved into transitional housing; three moved on to other
shelter options; and one family remained in the program.
Since starting in 1986 in Summit, N.J., Interfaith networks have multiplied
across the country, growing to 94 centers in 29 states.
The Savannah program started in 1996. It was not until 2000, though, that
the group had a leader who lasted more than a couple years.
Gibson-Carter established the local Interfaith as a program independent from
any one church and has expanded it to include new churches and to increase
the number of families served.
With approximately $100,000 annual operating budget, Interfaith is used to
stretching dollars.
The program pays for a full-time director and four part-time workers, a $700
per month lease, utilities, transportation for the families and assistance
for resettling families.
Mostly, it's work of the heart, Gibson-Carter said.
"For me, it's more mission driven," she said. "It's a calling."
"The program takes our faith and puts it into practical action," said
Stephen Williams, minister of First Presbyterian Church. "We don't just talk
about caring for our neighbor; with the Network, we actually do it."
Still, the center has sometimes struggled to find its footing.
Since January, 2001, the program has leased its two-story house.
The program now needs more space to expand. The house lacks reliable heating
and up-to-date kitchen appliances. The burglar bars on the windows are
hardly a welcoming sight for children, Gibson-Carter said.
In 2002, the program received an $80,000 state grant to purchase a house in
the eastside community. But the neighborhood association rallied officials
against allowing the facility to move in.
Time limits on the grant required Interfaith return the money to the state,
though the door is still open, Gibson-Carter said.
If they get a new center, Interfaith will expand services and recruit more
'True hospitality'
Families find Interfaith through recommendations from hospitals, schools and
other programs in the Chatham-Savannah Authority for the Homeless.
To qualify as an Interfaith "guest," a family can not have issues with
substance abuse or mental illness, which the program is not equipped to
The family must have children related by blood to the mother or father.
Families stay at each church seven days. The average time a family stays in
the program is between 30 and 45 days.
Church volunteers prepare three meals a day and stay overnight with the
families at the church.
But food and shelter is the least of the services, Gibson-Carter said.
"We share meals with them and get to know them," Williams said. "There is
true hospitality."
Some churches put up welcome signs for guests or host storytellers or tutors
for the children.
Gibson-Carter calls this "Christian compassionate care."
"It's taking the time to ask mom or dad how their day was, playing with the
children, helping parents brainstorm about employment and housing," she
"There's nothing more powerful than a kind word in a time of despair,"
Gibson-Carter said.
Guests are not required to attend religious services, though churches may
invite them.
That kindness helped Ursula Robinson stay focused on getting her family back
on track.
"I was disappointed I didn't get that house. But I think this was God saying
to me, 'I've got something better for you, and I've got some great people
for you to meet before you get there."
The former nurse has been unable to sit or stand for long periods of time
since injuring her back on the job. Her disability application is pending.
But the contacts she made at the churches lead to her current home and to a
plan for a job.
"I was around so many loving people," Robinson said. "Everybody in Savannah
that I've met, they've been everything I was looking for."

About Interfaith Hospitality Network
Provides shelter, food, clothing, child care and other basic needs to
homeless families. Eleven local churches rotate housing families on a weekly
Network Director: Kesha Gibson-Carter
Her salary: $32,700
Current budget: approximately $100,000
Needs: Golfers for a fund-raising tournament Oct. 25; a new headquarters/day
center; and additional board members. For information, call Kesha
Gibson-Carter at 790-9446.

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