In 2012 Jesse Chang wrote about the ongoing struggle between church and state. First Baptist Church had wanted to participate in a program to house homeless families, but the City said that the church was located outside of areas that were designated for homeless shelters. To circumvent this issue, First Baptist started housing the families in off-site hotels. Chang wrote to us recently to say that First Baptist has continued this act of charity, and that the City has not changed their policy on homeless shelters. He continues to work for Kingdom Causes Alhambra – Monterey Park, a faith-based non-profit that organizes local churches, and helps create outdoor classroom gardens for campuses in the Alhambra Unified School District.
A San Gabriel Valley single mom with two kids was self-employed until the recession hit. Then her business tanked, and she resorted to cleaning homes and her child’s school. Soon the family was homeless, living and sleeping in her car at local mall parking lots.
Her story is all too familiar to clergy. Homeless individuals or families often approach churches for assistance: money for a bus token, food, or a room to stay in overnight. With the recession, the request for help has increased.
As a community organizer working with faith groups, I was intrigued three years ago when a church leader told me they had heard about a better solution to homelessness. Family Promise, a national non-profit network that helps families get permanent housing by utilizing a network of local churches, was creating a new project in the west San Gabriel Valley and recruiting members. The program leverages church resources to find a local solution to homelessness — providing homeless families with a hand up, not a handout. A network of area churches currently hosts three to four families a week, feeding and housing them overnight while offering job and housing resources and counseling during the day. Family Promise helps families save any generated income to get back on their feet when they exit the program.
After years of preparation, last winter the program launched with South Pasadena, Monterey Park, Sierra Madre, Rosemead and Pasadena congregations participating. But while Alhambra churches were interested as well, the city has put up obstacles to the program: officials have maintained during more than a dozen conversations and meetings that housing these families would be a violation of local regulations.
Instead, the city, which currently lacks a homeless shelter, maintains it has designated two potential locations for homeless shelters. A church actively seeking to participate, First Baptist Church of Alhambra, does not fall into those two areas. Officials’ suggestions to build a shelter in the allowed zones were impractical and outside of the format of Family Promise’s program where churches share responsibility for hosting a small number of families at a time who rotate locations.
When First Baptist tried to host the program in January, the city threatened to issue a temporary restraining order. The response in Alhambra is in stark contrast to neighboring Monterey Park where the city encouraged Family Promise, providing Block Grant money to the program and where three churches are now host congregations.
Restricting Family Promise is a serious loss for Alhambra. More than 5,000 homeless people live in the San Gabriel Valley, including about 1,800 people in families, according to the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments. But only 343 shelter beds are designated for families. And not one is in Alhambra.
It is easy for the city leaders in this discussion to only focus on rules and laws, but I believe that the city has overstepped its bounds and infringed on religious freedoms. I also feel the city is failing to seize a viable solution for its residents. According to Family Promise, 75 percent of the more than 47,000 homeless they help nationally each year exit the program within 65 days. Already, during their time in Family Promise, a Pasadena family saved enough money to rent a house. The father got a drivers license and the mother began contributing and working outside the home. All of this was accomplished when a network of faith communities banded together.
Family Promise gives local churches the opportunity to make a personal connection with the issue of homelessness and offer a local solution. I hope the city will want to partner with this network in creating even better ways of tackling the issue of homelessness—of people going through tough times—in our community.