Next Doors: Promise of a New Day

Many people think that people who are experiencing homelessness are always experiencing homelessness, or close to it. But nothing could be further from the truth, especially when the economic factors of the past few years come into play.

While rising property values are great for home and property owners, that upward pressure has raised rental housing rates — dramatically. And the Phoenix metro area has seen some of the sharpest increases in the country.

The result is a slow-moving disaster unfolding for a family that may have never struggled to pay for housing before. A family that may have been spending $1,000 per month on rent three years ago may be spending more like $1,600 now. And they probably didn’t start out making a ton of money, and probably didn’t have a commensurate increase in salary.

Nowadays, a significant part of the increase in homelessness is affecting people it never affected before — children and families that were once housing-secure. And those families need to stay together, for many and obvious reasons, especially for the children involved.

It’s not an entirely new problem, but it’s worse now than perhaps ever before. That’s where an organization like Family Promise of Greater Phoenix comes in.

Family Promise actually started quite some time ago, in New York in 1986. The idea behind it was that instead of trying to shelter people in emergency situations in large, expensive shelters, church congregations would extend their own hospitality and work to provide more than just shelter to families in crisis. Yes, they would provide shelter, but they would also provide a support network that would help parents get jobs and children stay engaged in school and even ensure that pets get to stay with the families that love them.

The idea went national, and organizations were formed on the local level in cities across the country, including here in Phoenix. Ted Taylor, CEO of Family Promise of Greater Phoenix, said a few community leaders from Phoenix went on a field trip to Indiana to see how it worked, and brought the concept here in 1998.

“The first families were welcomed in the spring of 2000, and since then, we’ve grown tremendously,” he said. “This year, we served our 1,650th family… we believe the family must be kept intact, and by the way, including the pets.”

The approach was as important as the delivery, especially as time went on. Taylor calls it a “love immersion” program that helps families rebuild their sense of community. Family Promise of Greater Phoenix has five day centers that serve families during the day, and then the families go to congregations at night — a total of 48 congregations throughout the metro area.

Taylor said that approximately 80 percent of families they encounter have never experienced homelessness before. So getting them back into work and school is important, but families are also helped with healthcare and other critical needs.

“The way people think about us is that we are rigorous,” Taylor said. “We’re only a 60-day program, with average family stays of about 43 days. Our average family is employed within 14 days of arrival.

After they go to work, Family Promise does something really unique. “We teach pro forma cash flow,” Taylor said. “We teach families how to manage cash 15 weeks ahead of now. It is a rigorous program that helps families identify how to graduate from Family Promise sustainably.”

Here’s where it gets interesting, and where some potential long-term solutions start to surface. Over the years, Family Promise realized that every family is unique and the answers to their problems need to be created on a case-by-case basis.

This need really came to light as the pandemic started to affect income and homelessness. Taylor said they realized prevention is the key, just as it is with healthcare. Preventing a patient from becoming sick costs less than treating a sick patient. The same holds with keeping families housed.

After all, bills and income are fungible — a family may run out of rent money because a car breaks down, a health issue arises, or they have to buy groceries. Taylor said the cost of hosting a family for the 43-day period Family Promise averages is $5,000.

“We learned in 2020 and 2021 that, when we began doing prevention work because of COVID, the average cost of preventing families from needing shelter is $1,500 a family,” he said. “So we have discovered this new world of prevention, and we are partnering with many different organizations —including landlords at apartment complexes that have gotten to know us. We don’t deliver checks to clients; we deliver checks to landlords or providers who need those payments.”

So, Family Promise teams up with behavioral health agencies, domestic violence shelters and other agencies that can deal with “high-challenge families,” in Taylor’s words, to address the most unique and difficult cases.

All of this is critical, but it doesn’t address the core issue many families are dealing with right now — access to affordable housing.

“We have a funnel that is being squeezed off at the back end of homelessness,” Taylor said. “When the moratorium occurred for rental evictions, it froze the system. Families we serve couldn’t move into affordable housing because no one was moving out.”

That’s when creativity really came in. If there was no supply of affordable housing, Family Promise of Greater Phoenix decided to try to create their own. They realized that many of the congregations they were working with had small plots of land that could be utilized to create new opportunities for affordable housing. In partnership with BHHS Legacy Foundation, they devised a new idea.

Think micro-rental communities. As it is being executed, small units of affordable housing are built from shipping containers at half the cost of what it would take to build conventional affordable housing. The first will be on a one-third-acre parcel in Glendale, but they are looking for other congregational sites around the Valley with the proper zoning.

BHHS Legacy Foundation provided the seed grant for the first property — a six-unit property that is in the final stages of approval with the city — and Taylor said this will be “disruptive” to the affordable housing market.

“We’re going to create the ability to go on smaller properties — at a church or on smaller parcels that a normal developer wouldn’t touch — at a very low cost of entry,” Taylor said. If these kinds of projects start popping up all over the Valley, then even small, incremental measures can make a big difference. And through a creative, individualized approach to helping families overcome homelessness, real change can become a reality.

“We are showing we can fix big problems in our society by focusing on community,” Taylor said.

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About Tom Evans

Tom Evans is Contributing Editor of Frontdoors Media and the Senior Vice President at Lumen Strategies
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