Four times each year, First MB Church in Wichita, Kansas, transforms classrooms into guest rooms and welcomes homeless families for a weeklong stay. It’s part of the church’s involvement with Family Promise of Greater Wichita (FPGW), an affiliate of the nationwide Family Promise, which seeks to provide a holistic response to families experiencing homelessness.
“Family Promise is a comprehensive program that provides a hand up rather than just a handout for families in distress,” says First MB director of community impact Linda Oelze. “We believe their mission and vision are in line with Jesus’ mandate to care for the poor.”
First MB is one of 25 host congregations for FPGW that has committed to provide shelter and meals for homeless families in the program. Additional Wichita-area churches provide meals, volunteers, donations and supplies.
“It is so incredible how God has brought over 40 churches of all denominations together in Wichita to serve the homeless in our city,” Oelze says. “I would encourage any church who does not currently have Family Promise in its area to consider partnering with other churches to start an affiliate.”
Family Promise provides homeless families with more than a place to stay. According to its website, Family Promise is a national movement whose mission is to help homeless and low-income families achieve sustainable independence through a community-based response.
Homelessness in Wichita
During the 2017-18 school year, schools in the greater Wichita area provided services to nearly 2,500 children without a permanent nighttime address, according to FPGW executive director Stacia Thompson, who says the number is likely double when factoring in children ages 0-4 and others who are transient and not attending school.
It’s difficult to gather accurate statistics on homelessness in Wichita, Thompson says, as statistics do not always paint an accurate picture and can downplay the need. For Wichita’s 2019 Point in Time count, social service providers counted the homeless in the community on one day, using a narrow definition of homelessness excluding those staying in motels, “couch surfing” or staying with friends, Thompson says. The count reported 593 homeless persons, an increase of 20 people from 2018.
“Those of us that work in this arena know that the numbers are much, much higher,” Thompson says. “It’s just that the counting systems used are so flawed and the way the government keeps changing the official definition of homeless skews the numbers so it looks like the problem is decreasing, but it really isn’t.”
From classroom to guest room
First MB first became involved with FPGW in spring of 2018 and hosted its first three families last December in Phase 2 of FPGW’s three-phase process.
In Phase 1, FPGW assists families with urgent needs for homelessness prevention. Phase 2 is the Rotation Program, in which families are housed and fed by congregations like First MB, then transported to a Day House for customized case management. In Phase 3, families who have graduated from the Rotation Program receive mentoring.
To prepare for a week of hosting, First MB volunteers converted four kids’ classrooms into guest rooms and a fifth room into a family room, with a nearby kitchen and bathroom. Volunteers laundered bedding, did meal prep, planned activities and served as dinner or overnight hosts.
For a typical week of hosting, families arrive for a meal and orientation on Sunday evening. Then, each morning after breakfast, volunteers transport families to the Day House‚ a house with furnished living areas, a kitchen, office spaces, a playroom, showers and laundry facilities.
For its December hosting, First MB volunteers created a festive atmosphere, and invited families to attend one of the church’s Christmas Eve services.
“We had a lit, decorated Christmas tree in each of the guests’ rooms as well as our family room,” Oelze says. “There were stockings on the doors and gifts under the tree on Christmas morning for each family member. We shared a large meal on Christmas evening, complete with crystal, china, candles and music. The families said they felt like royalty.”
A vivid, daily reminder
“Guests have a vivid, daily reminder that there are people who care about them and want to walk alongside them in this difficult season,” Oelze says. “There are people committed to help them realize their hopes and dreams.”
First MB averages 60 volunteers per week of hosting, an effort coordinated by Oelze and Sara Froese, First MB Family Promise coordinator. Oelze says 94 people from First MB have attended the required Family Promise training.
Families are referred to Family Promise or may self-refer. To be considered, families must meet certain criteria and commit to the program, after which an in-depth interview determines placement. The program is funded by donors, including individuals, businesses and congregations.
In 2018, FPGW served 20 families, and 71 percent of families in the Rotation Program achieved housing.
Three families First MB has hosted have graduated from the program, Oelze says, including a family of five, whose story Oelze, Froese and Thompson have narrated.
A family transformation
The family—a father, mother and three elementary age children—came from out of state for a job that did not work out. Far from family and without the means to return, the family resorted to sleeping in a park. A Family Promise volunteer overheard the family discussing their situation at a local McDonald’s and suggested they give Family Promise a call. They did, completed the interview process and were brought into the program.
The father found a job, the kids enrolled in school and the mother began studying for her GED and connected with medical providers to help her chronic health issues.
Through Family Promise, the family achieved their case management goals, found housing, saved 80 percent of their income for a nest egg through Family Promise’s savings match program, developed a sustainable budget, were approved to receive a free car through Family Promise’s vehicle donation program and received household items and furniture through donations from volunteers.
Since their graduation, the family now volunteers for Family Promise.
“The mom recently attended a couple of Family Promise events, and some volunteers didn’t recognize her because her entire countenance had changed,” Oelze, Froese and Thompson write. “She now walks with her head held high, makes eye contact with people and has seen her physical health improve tremendously. It has been a joy and a privilege for all of us to witness this transformation in the entire family.”
First MB hosted its second families in March and most recently hosted families June 23-30. The church will host families again in September and December.
“Many in our church have such a concern for the homeless but feel so unequipped to help or clueless as to where to begin,” Oelze says. “Family Promise avails us the opportunity to be a part of the solution while sometimes providing a glimpse into a culture outside of our own. We often liken it to having a mission trip within the church. We have found serving in Family Promise to be a great deterrent of perpetuating stereotypes and judgmental attitudes.”
The church is committed to serving families through FPGW.
“At First MB, we want to continue to raise the awareness of needs, more ways to engage and generate enthusiasm, and recruit more volunteers within our congregation,” Oelze says. “Our hope is to continue to be a hosting congregation while we trust God for new (and) additional ways to partner with and support Family Promise.”