Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Home and Hope for the Working Poor

A few weeks ago I wrote about meeting Raj Rambob, Executive Director of "Home and Hope," a small non-profit in San Mateo County that works with local religious congregations to provide temporary shelter for working poor families that may have become homeless as a result of a financial setback such as the loss of a job. He invited me to come to their offices to learn more about what they do and discuss how access to financial services tailored to the needs of the working poor might prevent such occurrences or assist families to recover from such setbacks.

"Home and Hope" has been operating for ten years and is affiliated with "Family Promise," a national organization in operations for more than 20 years. "Family Promise" developed the model "Home and Hope" uses for organizing local congregations of all faiths to provide an evening meal and a safe place to sleep for homeless families. There are currently 31 congregations in San Mateo County participating in the program which at any one time can serve up to five families consisting of as many as 14 individuals.

"Home and Hope" operates a day center where families can store limited belongings, access showers and laundry facilities, care for pre-school aged children and use computers and access the internet. Raj explained that the typical stay for their families averaged 55 days in previous years. Last year, as a result of the worsening job market, this tenure increased to an average of 93 days.

Congregations provide services on a rotating basis for one to two weeks at a time. Home and Hope operates with six paid staff who work with 45 coordinators from the congregations and over 1200 volunteers. I commented that this seemed to be an extraordinary number of individuals to be involved in an effort that could only serve 14 individuals. Raj agreed that “efficiency” was not a primary goal of the program. However, maximizing exposure to the problem of homelessness and engaging the community in finding solutions was a key benefit of the model.

Raj cited examples of how direct community involvement has led to hopeful outcomes for some guests in the program. One individual, noting the late night studies of one high school student, provided the opportunity for that student to attend community college after graduation. Another offered a live-in elder care position for one of the program guests.

While no case is typical, Raj related the story of one family that had operated a successful mobile canteen business serving workers at construction sites in the county. With the downturn in the economy and resultant decline in construction, their business became so bad they could not afford to renew their business permit and were forced to go out of business. After going through their savings and liquidating their fixed assets they lost the capacity to pay rent and became homeless.

Through contact with a volunteer from one of the congregations, this family has been able to find work in a culinary related business and gain access to low income housing. While this is certainly a hopeful outcome, it is unlikely that the family has regained its former level of economic security. One might ask where they could have turned for assistance before losing their assets or now, how they might be able to restart their business?

Coincidently, it was announced yesterday that Grameen America, the non-profit microfinance organization dedicated to fighting poverty in the United States will be launching its operations in San Francisco this summer. Already, from branches in New York and Omaha, Nebraska, Grameen America has lent over $5 million and provided financial education to entrepreneurs living below the federal poverty line in the U.S. Hope indeed that Raj’s guest may find homes again soon.

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