RESTART: A Program To Find A Home For The Homeless
By Alice Rubercheck
Since the founding of the parish of St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church in Wallingford, Pennsylvania fifteen years ago, charity and stewardship have been an important part of our church life.
For many years our focus was on providing food baskets for needy families in the neighborhood. The families were chosen by the principal of the elementary school across the street from the church. About five years ago, some of the members wanted to make a more personal commitment to the needy. We requested from the local state welfare office the names and addresses of two needy families, along with the ages and sex of the children and their “wish list” for Christmas. Our committee listed each item on a separate index card, with the size and age of each child.
The parishioners of St. Herman then chose the gift they wished to donate, purchased and wrapped it, and noted on the outside of the package what was inside. Some members donated cash for shoes and coats. The committee requested one new item of clothing and one new toy for each childsupplemented by used clothing in excellent condition. We helped three families in two years by this program. These efforts were a great success because almost everyone in the parishincluding the childrenwas involved. Although the committee respected the privacy of the families we helped, we did let the parish know how happy the children and their parents were with the gifts.
This outreach into the community was more helpful (and more satisfying to the givers) than just collecting food and delivering baskets to a school. However, the Charity Committee felt a little frustrated as we knew this assistance was only temporary aid, and the children would outgrow their clothes, the toys would break, and the need would be there again.
THE PLAN TO ORGANIZE RESTART
In June, 1986, the Lord sent us Helen, a neighbor of the church who had a wonderful idea to help a segment of our community in a significant way. Helen told us about the plan she had to organize RESTART, a program to aid the homeless in re-establishing the homes they had lost. These families were homeless for a variety of reasonsproblems that can befall any one of us or our childrenloss of a job, prolonged illness, divorce or death of a spouse, drug and/or alcohol addiction. These families lost their homes, their possessions; they have nothing but each other, their car, and whatever personal belongings they can fit into it.
Because they have no permanent address, they do not qualify for welfare or food stamps. They do not have an address to put on job applications. The children cannot attend school because they have no permanent address. Families are unique among the homeless. Shelters exist for men or for women, or for childrenbut not for families. The only family shelter operating in a nearby city provides only the basic necessities, and even there the family cannot live as a unit due to overcrowding. The building is in deplorable condition, with rats having free run of the premises. Drugs and alcohol are everpresent. The teenage son of the shelter director was murdered on the front steps. The members of our committee who visited this “shelter” vowed to do whatever was necessary to keep at least one family from going there.
OUR FIRST FAMILY
We contacted the local welfare office. We told them of our interest in helping a homeless family to reestablish itself and what we would be able to offer them. The welfare agency described to us a particular family in need, and said they would let that family know about us and would have them contact us. They called us and we interviewed our first RESTART family, a mother, father, and two children, a boy of 4 and a girl of 2. The father was 26, unemployed, with no marketable skills. He had lost his driving license, and they had no car insurance. However, their car was their home.
The mother, obviously the mainstay of this family, had done clerical work and was attempting to stabilize the family. The little boy was shy, with big, beautiful brown eyes. The little girl was friendly, loving, cuddly and bright. After explaining our program to them, and some discussion among ourselves, we offered to help our first family.
The father was encouraged to check on the status of his driving license reinstatement and let us know what the remaining unpaid fines were. We gave them a stipend for immediate needs, such as gas for the car and food. They had been living in the car for six weeks, in parking lots during the day time, visiting the malls so the children could safely play a little, and spent the nights in the rest area on the interstate. They had no funds or extra clothing because the last landlord had kept everything they owned when they were evicted for nonpayment of rent. The children had no toys or books to help keep them occupied in the confines of the car.
Our next objective was to find them an apartment or a house to rent. With the amount of money they were eligible for from welfare while they were looking for jobs, we had to find a home that would rent for less than $300 a month, almost an impossibility. Two of the members of the committee took the family to look for their new home. We found it unbelievable what deplorable buildings were renting for astronomical rates. The search went on almost daily for two weeks in the sweltering August heat. The mother finally found an old farm house available for $300, including heat. We went out to see it, and met the landlady who was very gracious and understanding. We paid the security deposit and the first month’s rent.
In the meantime, we had informed the parish of the family’s need (see the letter at the end of the article), and we were overwhelmed with the response. We received beds, tables and chairs, sofas and lamps, even rugs and curtains. Also, pots and pans, dishes, silverware, and a TV. Some people donated food and cash to have the utilities turned on.
NEEDS BEYOND HOUSE AND FURNITURE
After the family was settled in their new home, we sat down with them and discussed their budget and obligations. Now that they had a permanent address, they could file for welfare and food stamps, and we encouraged them to do so while looking for work. They had some outstanding debts that were on their credit record, and we encouraged them to pay these off as soon as possible, sending only a few dollars a week to each creditor until the balance was paid off. The little boy was enrolled in a Head Start program, and the baby was content to stay home and play with her new toys.
Over the next six months, we kept in close contact with the family. They never did attend services at St. Herman’s as we had hoped, because the father obtained a job as a cook and had to work on Sundays and they had only one car. However, they did come to our picnic and met some of our parishioners. We gave them additional funds several times over these months, once when the car needed repairs. The mother took a part-time job in one of the stores in the mall and worked when the father was home to baby-sit.
This family had many problems, and we were unable to help them with some of them. At least we got them out of the car and into a home and the boy in school. They did not have any support, either financial or emotional, from their families. Unfortunately, their families were almost in as bad a situation as they were. We offered the support most of us get from our extended family and friends.
THE SECOND FAMILY
The second family came to our attention the next summer. This was a mother and three children, a son 16, and two daughters 14 and 12. The father had deserted them several months before, taking all the money they had, and the mother had no idea where he was. This family was living in a motel room for $30 a day with no cooking facilities. The mother was working ten to twelve hours a day as a waitress, but after she paid for the room there was scarcely any money left for food. This was in August. The school year would be starting soon and the children were not enrolled.
As soon as one of our parish members heard of this situation, she and her husband gave this family a very substantial sum of money to help with immediate expenses. They told me they could not have left on vacation themselves without making sure this family had at least some food. Unselfish love like this is what makes St. Herman’s special!
The mother of this family is a survivor, strong and hardworking. She never asked us for anything. When we offered to help her, she was overwhelmed with gratitude. She found a house to rent in a neighborhood with good schools for her children. We gave her the money for the first month’s rent and deposit to turn on the utilities. Again we went to the parish with our needs for this family, and again they came through. Eventually every member of the family had a bed and some clothes. Several months after establishing her new home, the mother’s car broke down.
For three weeks she took two buses and walked five miles to work each night, where she waited on tables for ten hours, until she had saved enough money to repair the car. We found out about this after the car was repairedshe didn’t want to “bother us.” We have not financially aided this family for several months. The children are doing well in school. The mother is still working in a restaurant and is trying to purchase a home on a lease/purchase plan. We thank God for the opportunity to have played a small part in this miracle.
At the present time, we are not sponsoring a family. Personal and health problems have beset the Charity Committee members, and it is difficult to reach the level of commitment which is needed for success of this type of venture. We are attempting to reorganize our committee with new hearts and hands. Please God, we will soon be helping another family break the cycle of poverty, and help them establish themselves in the community again.
SUGGESTIONS FOR A “RESTART” PROGRAM:
- To find a homeless family in need of help, contact local shelters that may be in your area, such as those run by the Salvation Army, the Catholic Church, Breakfast Mission or an already established program such as “Adopt a Family.” The state welfare office and the local school are also places that know of those in need.
- It is good to learn as much as possible about the family from the shelter, the agency or a social worker so that the group can accept a family whose needs they can realistically fulfill, whose problems are those the group can cope with. It is helpful if the family is in contact with a social worker as well since some of the problems that arise may need the advice and the additional support from someone working in the field.
- Make use of community resources already established, such as the food stamps, social agencies, school nurses.
- Welfare is not a “dirty word.” Help your clients use it while getting re-established. They should use it as a crutch. When the family is able to support itself, throw the crutch away.
- Volunteers who work with the family need patience, understanding, empathy, and firmness. We need to guide, not rule.
- The volunteers should not play “Lady Bountiful”, neither should they judge.
- These families are drowning in the system. Our job is to support them with love and friendship until they can stay afloat.
- Make a definite commitment to the family in terms of financial support, assistance in finding employment, helping them establish a budget, home management skills, child care, and babysitting.
- Expect and insist upon a definite commitment from all members of the family, including the children. Parents must obtain employment and strive to be independent in as short a time as possible.
- Set a time limit when help will be availablebut be prepared to extend it for unforeseen emergencies. Let the client know you will not abandon them after they are in their home. Let them know you will be around with suggestions and guidance, if not with funds.
- The committee working with these families should be large and broadbased. It should include both men and women, even some older teens, in order to better identify with all members of the family. Also, parishioners who are employed in social work, employment agencies, or health care can offer their assistance and expertise on an as-needed basis.
- Realize that especially with the first family you help, much will be learned, mistakes will be made. The accomplishments may be tempered with a realization that you can’t do all that you thought you would be able to for them. Don’t let this discourage you from seeing the help and support you have given, and from reaching out to that second family.
THE IDEAL RESTART PROGRAM:
A small house purchased and maintained by the parish. The house will then be “rented” to a selected homeless family for a period to be predetermined, six months, or a year.
The family will start out paying no rent or utilities for a month or two. During this time, the parent(s) will find employment, the children will attend school, a temporary budget will be set up.
The new few months, the family will begin to pay the utilities. By the fourth or fifth month, they will pay a token rent and establish a savings account.
From then until the end of the agreed upon time limit, the family will continue to support itself to a limited degreemaking firm plans for the future.
At the end of the agreed upon time, the family will move to the home they will establish, and the house will be available for the next RESTART family.
This is an ambitious project, and perhaps could best be accomplished by two or more churches together. The important thing is to make a startlight the candleand our Father in Heaven will bless us!
If you have any questions, write to:
Mrs. Alice Ruberchek
814 Woodsdale Rd.
Wilmington, DE 19809
St. Herman Orthodox Church
June 26, 1986
Dear Parishioners and Friends of St. Herman Orthodox Church:
Are you aware that every night more than 1,000 families in Delaware County go to sleep in their cars . . . in parking lots, on side streets, in rest areas along the interstate?
For the last couple of weeks, we at St. Herman Church have been learning about RESTART, a program to help these families help themselves to get their lives back together again. We, the Charity Committee of St. Herman Church, are taking this opportunity to inform you of this great need, and what we can do to help! These families are homeless for a variety of reasonsproblems that can befall anyone of us or our children . . . loss of a job, prolonged illness, divorce or death of a spouse, or drug and alcohol addiction. These families have lost their homes and their possessions; they have nothing but each other, their car, and what personal belongings they can fit into it.
Because they have no permanent address, they do not qualify for welfare or food stamps. They do not have an address to put on job applications. The children cannot attend school because they have no permanent address. When we are without funds, friends, or other help, to whom do we turn?
For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me . . . as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:35-40)
One of the families whose car was their home for several months, and who has now settled in the St. Herman neighborhood, has founded RESTART. This is a program where the homeless families are matched with a church, and everyone works together to get the family a fresh start. They would pray together, talk together, eat together, and help each other. The responsibility of a sponsor would be to provide the security deposit and one month’s rent, payment of utilities for two to three months, and emergency funds for food until the family gets reestablished; also assist the new family find employment, used furniture and household items, help with budget, menu planning, shopping, and child care. The responsibility of the family would be to actively search for a job, place the children in school, sign up for whatever funds to which they are entitled until they get a few paychecks, and attend Delaware County Community College for a course on job skills for re-entering the ranks of the employed.
The Charity Committee will be calling all members of St. Herman Church during the week to answer any questions you may have about RESTART, and to inform you of this great need, and request your assistance.
When you tuck your children into bed tonight . . . or when you look at a photograph of your grandchildren . . . what better way to thank our Lord and Saviour than to help one of His troubled families?
With Love and Faith in Jesus Christ,
ST. HERMAN ORTHODOX CHURCH CHARITY COMMITTEE