Raphael House of San Francisco: A Shelter for Homeless Families

By Fr. David Lowell


More than 30 years   ago, long before homelessness was a national issue, Raphael House began serving   women and children who were temporarily homeless. In 1977, we expanded our facilities   so we could host intact families with fathers as well.

Raphael House was   started by Christ the Saviour Brotherhood in 1971. In 1990 they asked Raphael   House to incorporate separately and form a lay Board of Directors which we did   in 1991. Live-in staff now come from Orthodox parishes at large and are asked   to be active in a local parish. In November 2000, the Chapel at Raphael House   became an OCA chapel attached to Holy Trinity Cathedral here in San Francisco.

In 1991 we also began   hiring additional staff who do not live at Raphael House. These hardworking,   talented staff members are essential in carrying out our full range of services   for our families. Over the past decade, we have averaged 46 employees, full   and part time, at Raphael House.

Mission and   Program

Our shelter has 17   bedrooms for families. Our After Care Program serves 788 former residents who   are now successfully housed.

In addition to filling   the most basic needs for food, shelter, and clothing, Raphael House provides   a home-like atmosphere of love, care, and security in which families can rebuild   their lives.

The mission of Raphael   House is to help homeless families achieve stable housing and financial independence   while strengthening family bonds. To achieve this goal, Raphael House offers   a comprehensive array of support services for residents including case management,   advocacy, job counseling, life skills training in areas such as parenting and   budgeting, housing assistance, child care, and an integrated children’s   program that provides structured educational and recreational activities.

There are four key   components to the Raphael House program:

  • The residential   program allows families to stay with us for up to six months.
  • The combined casework,   counseling, and education components help families define goals and receive   training on how to reach those goals.
  • Our children’s   program delivers a strong, daily structure that fosters creativity and imagination   through art, stories, games and dance.
  • Our After Care   program provides systematic follow-up support to former resident families,   including social, educational, and cultural events and activities.

While at Raphael   House, each family is provided with a room or set of rooms as their home for   the duration of their stay. Each family contributes to the community by helping   with household tasks like washing dishes and making lunches. Children receive   tutoring, lots of supervised activities, and a structured daily routine. To   encourage and educate families on the rigors of money management, parents working   outside the shelter turn 80% of each paycheck over to Raphael House for investing   in a savings account. The account is turned over in full to the families as   they depart, usually serving as a security deposit and rent when they find a   place to live.

Financial   Support

Raphael House doesn’t   take government money. This is partly because we have an Orthodox religious   community and chapel on the premises, though that in itself wouldn’t preclude   government support. The primary reason we are free of tax dollars is our longstanding   belief that we can run a stricter program if we are privately funded.

Individual donors,   foundations, corporations, special events, and revenue from our Thrift Store   are the sources for our 1.9 million dollar operating budget each year.

Large Volunteer   Base

Individual volunteers   as well as corporate and church groups participate in virtually every aspect   of our work at Raphael House – from tutoring children, to cooking dinner,   to serving on the Board of Directors. Last year volunteers contributed over   13,000 hours of service. In addition,   to 60 weekly volunteers, there are 1,200 volunteers who help with meal preparation,   holidays, and special occasions. Volunteer chefs cook and serve more than 6,000   meals through our Corporate Chef program. A full time Volunteer Coordinator   recruits, orients and schedules our volunteers.

Live-in Community

There are 12 full   time staff who live at Raphael House – all Orthodox Christians. In addition   we usually have several live-in volunteers who will stay three to nine months,   living and working at Raphael House. We also have five children among the staff   families.

At Raphael House   I serve in many capacities. I am the Executive Director. I am the Priest in   charge. I am a parent who has raised his family at Raphael House for the past   16 years. And – not as insignificant a role as it may sound – I   am a regular member of the dish team three nights a week. This last point is   very important because Raphael House is a working household. While we have many   “outside” staff (some Orthodox, some not) who also participate strongly   in the daily life at Raphael House, it is the live-in community who ensure that   the stability of this household is a continuous, uninterrupted reality.

Live-in staff are   not entirely OCA. We have several native born Russians on our staff who are   members of the Moscow Patriarchate Church, and one life-long Antiochian. In   addition to occasional mid-week liturgies at Raphael House, I am attached and   serve regularly at Holy Trinity Cathedral with the Rector, the Archpriest Victor   Sokolov. The church is within easy walking distance.

Residential   Internships for Orthodox Women

Raphael House of   San Francisco offers residential internships for Orthodox Christian women who   are interested in learning more about serving families in crisis. The live-in   staff have one floor of the shelter, so we do have some privacy. Space is limited,   however, which is why we usually only accept women. Over the past decade we   have had 57 live-in volunteers who came for internships as short as six weeks   or for as long as one year. Some students arrange in advance to have their internship   approved for credit as part of graduate or undergraduate course work. Non-academic   internships are sometimes of interest to women who are changing their academic   or career path. More simply still, learning to serve families in crisis at Raphael   House is the way some of us feel called by God to serve others. It may have   nothing whatsoever to do with academia or a lucrative career path.

Our live-in Volunteer   Coordinator is Randa Aoun, a graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

International   Internships

We frequently host   international visitors who are interested in non-profit administration –   generally from Russia, 2 or 3 at a time, in cooperation with the Fund for International   Non-Profit Development. These mature visitors are struggling to build a new   volunteer service sector in Russia under very difficult conditions. While these   brief internships have been sponsored by secular agencies, we hope to have more   interns who come to us directly through relationships within the Church.

The Church   and the World

We have prayers in   the Chapel. We process on Theophany or Mid-Pentecost, blessing the House with   Holy Water. The live-in staff have ongoing studies. Skilled cooks prepare traditional   meals for residents, as well as vegetarian meals for the Orthodox live-in staff   every Wednesday and Friday, and during the fast periods. Raphael House is not   our Church – we all belong to and serve in other local parishes - but   the life of the Church is visible and tangible at Raphael House.

Raphael House is   also very much in the world. We attempt to operate by “best practices”   in non-profit management. We fingerprint all employees and volunteers. We work   closely with all social service agencies. We raise money. A wide array of volunteers,   corporations, and donors of all kinds participate in our work. Raphael House’s   ministry is very much in the secular world.

No religious obligations   are placed on the families who come to us. Most families are not Orthodox. We   absolutely do not proselytize in any way. People of no or unknown faith are   comfortable here. Our kitchen always accommodates practicing Jews or Muslims   with dietary restrictions. Our mission is to serve. Our witness is in doing   it well.

An Extended   Social Network

Our antidote for   families in crisis is that Raphael House is not in crisis. Not only does this   help a new family feel safe and able to re-order their lives, it also makes   it possible to build neighborly relationships that may last for years.

Former residents   come back for picnics, award dinners, children’s events and cultural outings.   We generally have 180 people at our Fourth of July picnic in Golden Gate Park.   Over the years we’ve seen many children grow up. (We have staff and volunteers   who stayed at Raphael House when they were children.) Our After Care program   is intended to be social and educational – fun, actually – rather   than overtly charitable. We do lots of charitable support for families after   they leave Raphael House (food, clothing, advocacy), but we do it privately.   When we come together for an event, our focus is on having a good (clean and   sober) time together. I have met degreed social workers, who don’t consider   social events to be social “work.” Our philosophy is the opposite   of that way of thinking. If you are missing the therapeutic importance of food,   manners and ongoing relationship, you’re missing it all. Helping out with   cleaning, dishes, sometimes with the cooking is also healthy and normal. Families   who participate in Raphael House activities have to have the opportunity to   give, not just to receive.

If we treat a family   only as a charity case, they won’t stay involved. Some families don’t   need or want an ongoing social network through Raphael House. We know, however,   that those families who actively participate in our follow-up activities do   remain housed and their children generally do better at school than they were   doing before they came to Raphael House.

Is the Raphael   House model replicable?

Clearly the “model”   we follow is not new. It is, however, difficult to replicate in 21st Century   America. Government funding has largely replaced religious based live-in residential   programs, which were once so common.

While a core of our   live-in staff in San Francisco have been at Raphael House for one or two decades,   there have been many hundreds of live-in staff who have devoted time to Raphael   House before moving on to their permanent life’s work. Without a steady   flow of residential interns, there is no way to renew the live-in staff. A single   parish can’t supply those staff, though a very small residential program   is occasionally possible when competent, committed leadership resides on the   premises.

While our focus is   homeless families, the principles in our program can be applied elsewhere for   other populations. This is the model in a nutshell:

  1. A working household   (live-in staff; everyone helps out)
  3. Live-in staff   with a prayer and sacramental life centered in the Church
  5. A total environment   – attractive, orderly and dignified. Those who serve and those who are   being served feel uplifted
  7. A narrowly conceived   program for a very specific population
  9. Clear boundaries,   rules, expectations
  11. Appropriate expertise   for the services rendered (Good intentions are not enough).
  13. A vision for   a broad base of support
  15. Good governance:
    • Committed       leader with a vision
    • Zeal for fiduciary       and legal accountability
    • A Board which       focuses on policy and direction, not day-to-day management

Weakness in any one   of these areas will cause problems. Terrible service projects result when the   principles of this model are reversed. Here is your service nightmare checklist:

  • Live-in staff   who are themselves charity cases
  • Staff who see   their service ministry as an alternative to life in the Church.
  • Junky environment   (opportunistic and random acquisition of donations; an anything-is-better-than-nothing   mentality)
  • Broadly conceived   service open to anyone
  • No clear boundaries,   guidelines, expectations for those served
  • Lack of expertise   or training
  • Ingrown vision   that clings to the smallest base of support
  • Committee-style   governance without a leader, without formalized oversight and without real   accountability

The staff at Raphael   House are very happy to talk with you about any questions or ideas you may have.   To learn more about Raphael House of San Francisco, online, go to http://www.raphaelhouse.org.   To learn more about our internship programs, contact Randa Aoun. To talk more   about programs and non-profit management issues, feel free to call me (or anyone   at Raphael House) at 415-474-4621. When you are in San Francisco, please come   by for a tour. We will be happy to show you around.

Fr. David Lowell   is Executive Directory of Raphael House. As an OCA priest, he is attached to   and serves at Holy Trinity Cathedral, San Francisco, California.

Taken   from the OCA Resource   Handbook for Lay Ministries