Newark-area churches expanding outreach to homeless

September 30, 2009

Church Warden Paul Shackford can still picture the first Girl Scouts who arrived to help feed the homeless people his parish was housing overnight in Harrington Park, New Jersey. "They were petrified."

One of the homeless guests at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church worked to put them at ease, asking the eighth-graders their names and joking with them. "By the time the evening was over, they felt completely different," Shackford said. "That group came back every year until they went off to college."

St. Andrew's is among a network of Episcopal churches that help to house and feed the homeless of Bergen County, New Jersey. Through the county's Interreligious Fellowship for the Homeless, St. Andrew's and some churches shelter carefully screened homeless individuals on a rotating basis, while others provide meals and volunteer with homeless families. Through its community development corporation, Christ Church, Hackensack -- a founding member of the fellowship -- provides no-questions-asked overnight shelter during the coldest months for up to 41 homeless individuals. In recent months, Christ Church also took over hosting daily dinners for 90 or more homeless people, with the fellowship providing the necessary volunteers.

Those programs for the homeless are on the verge of growing and changing, thanks to the opening of a new center for the county's homeless, at-risk and in-crisis individuals.

"They selected us to provide the sheltering and outreach and engagement services in the building," said Mary Sunden, Christ Church CDC executive director. Funding, mostly from government sources, includes federal stimulus money -- available October 1 -- primarily targeted to providing rapid housing for newly homeless people.

"There's a lot of federal government money available for what are called chronically homeless people, but there's not a lot available for newly or at-risk homeless people," Sunden said. "Our basic goal is, anyone who walks in, we can figure out what they need and find a match for them among the suite of services that are available."

The new center will offer, for example, a medical and dental clinic and case-management for housing issues.

"We will be moving all of our operations into that center, and we will be able to provide the expanded version of what we do now – kind of what we've always wished we could do on a much broader calendar," Sunden said. The CDC's $330,000 annual budget will double next year, she said. The CDC will be able to shelter people year-round instead of six months a year and will expand from offering referral services for a half-day shift four to five days a week to providing two shifts daily. The number of total beds for homeless adults in the county will be about the same, 90, but they'll all be at one site, she said.

Churches such as St. Andrew's, meanwhile, no longer will provide beds on a rotating daily basis for selected homeless individuals through what was called the "overflow shelter program" because the new shelter will accommodate them, said fellowship finance chair Shackford, whose church has housed 4,000 individuals total over 22 years. Now St. Andrew's hopes to join with other fellowship members in replicating a program called Family Promise, where churches house and feed families at night on a rotating weekly basis. The fellowship is searching for a location for a center that families can use during the day.

Adding to the need to house families is the fact that the family shelter where some fellowship congregations volunteered recently had to close following a second outbreak of bed bugs, said Marsha Mackey, fellowship executive director. "We think it's best that we try to look at another model for housing or temporarily sheltering our families until we can help them secure either transitional housing or permanent housing."

Mackey estimated 65 congregations, about a quarter of them Episcopal, helped house the county's homeless. Thousands of people volunteer, she said, including providing the meals now hosted by Christ Church that soon will move to the new county center.

The churches providing volunteers aren't necessarily large.

At St. Andrew's, which averages 50 to 60 congregants on a Sunday, "it's become really the foundation of our outreach," Shackford said. "Everything is built around homelessness for us."

Christ Church has about 200 members, said the Rev. Bill Parnell, rector. "We're not big, but we do big work."

An area typically associated with high incomes and expensive housing, Bergen County may seem an odd place for so much effort to aid the homeless.

"I think that one of the issues that we see in Bergen is that there is so little affordable housing available and that the jobs that a lot of our families are doing are very low-paying jobs," Mackey said, reflecting on the plight of homeless families. "They're not making enough money to really be able to afford market-value housing. But you don't see them. They're considered the invisible homeless. If they're not sheltered, they're staying with family or with friends. They're sofa-surfing. They're just not out on the street, as you see with the single homeless population. It's more visible in other counties."

Working with the homeless provides an education for volunteers as well as aid for the needy, Shackford said. Recalling those initially scared Girl Scouts, he said: "They learned a little bit more about homelessness, and they committed to come back every single year. For me to see them growing up through this whole process ... that's why we did it. That's why we have to find ways for young kids to get involved early and understand that they can make a difference."