By Bethany Bray
---- — When it’s time for Family Promise’s evening meal, it’s hard to distinguish who is a volunteer and who is a “guest,” a local homeless family working to get back on their feet.
That’s on purpose, said Elise Sinagra, director of the Beverly-based nonprofit. Volunteers do all they can to make their guests feel comfortable, including sitting down with them to eat a nightly meal.
Family Promise houses homeless families overnight in a network of churches and houses of worship. The program’s social worker provides intensive, personalized help to get them back on their feet.
The North Shore affiliate of Family Promise launched in May, after years of planning. In its first six months, the organization has served 16 people in six families and trained close to 600 volunteers from more than 30 congregations across the North Shore and Cape Ann.
“We’re pretty proud of that, to already have that level of success,” said Sinagra, who previously worked as a housing specialist in Congressman John Tierney’s office. “Our hope was that launching (the program) would create momentum, and it has worked out that way.”
They’ve had one family of five “graduate” and move into sustainable housing after 34 days in the program, said Sinagra. Several of the program’s other families are on their way — “right around the corner,” she said — to finding permanent housing.
“The phone calls started pouring in (once they launched in May),” she said. “The need that’s out there is really, really dire.”
In addition to providing one-on-one help from a full-time social worker, the program allows families to stay together, she said.
In one case, the program housed a single mom with a daughter and 18-year-old son. Most homeless shelters would have separated the family because the son was not a minor, Sinagra said.
“At any other shelter I know of, throughout the state, the son would have been separated from his mom and sisters,” she said. “That’s just a horrifying thought for us.”
Family Promise host congregations house up to four families or 14 people for one week, four times per year. Volunteers provide meals and support, such as helping children with their homework.
Volunteers come from the host congregations, as well as close to 30 “support congregations” from churches and synagogues across the region.
Family Promise of the North Shore currently has nine host congregations, but Sinagra said she hopes the program can grow to have 13 or more hosts. Program guests have also stayed at the Ipswich Inn, and Sinagra said she’s having discussions with Endicott College in Beverly to possibly house guests on their campus.
In addition to more host sites, the program is looking for more volunteers, Sinagra said.
“While we are very proud of the fact that we’ve launched, we’re up and running and it’s working, we need more resources, more people involved to lighten the load for those who are already involved,” she said.
Criminal background checks are done on all Family Promise guests, as well as program volunteers. Guests are also screened for substance-abuse problems, Sinagra said.
The organization has a day center at 330 Rantoul St. in Beverly, where guests meet with a social worker, do laundry, shower and are able to store a few items. Children are picked up at the day center and bused to the school district they last attended before the family became homeless.
The program’s families became homeless for a variety of reasons, from an unexpected job loss to unforeseen medical problems. Many of the program’s participants work but are still unable to find affordable housing.
“At the root of this, the reasons vary, but there is just a real fundamental lack of affordable housing in general, but acutely here on the North Shore,” Sinagra said. “We live in a beautiful place, but an expensive place.
“It can often times be one unfortunate incident away from starting this domino effect that leads to homelessness.”
Family Promise North Shore has three paid staffers: Sinagra, a full-time social worker and a bus driver.
The program does not receive any government funding and operates through private grants and donations.
Sinagra, who was hired one year ago, said the program’s volunteers and board of directors have been great to work with.
“They all go the extra mile to make sure the families in our program know they’re still members of a community and are cared for,” she said.
Sinagra said the program’s motto is “building communities, strengthening lives.”
“Six months in, I believe we’re doing both of those things,” she said.
Family Promise is based in New Jersey but has affiliates in 41 states. The North Shore affiliate is one of four in Massachusetts.
Bethany Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.
For more information, or to get involved, see www.familypromisensb.org, call 978-922-0787 or email info@FamilyPromiseNSB.org Host congregations: Christ Church, Hamilton Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church, Danvers First Church Wenham First Congregational Church, Essex First Congregational Church of Rockport First Parish Unitarian Universalist, Beverly First Presbyterian Church North Shore, Ipswich Immanuel Church, Beverly Second Congregational Church of Beverly Support congregations: Annisquam Village Church, Gloucester Ascension Memorial Church, Ipswich Church in the Cove, Beverly First Baptist Church, Beverly First Baptist Church of Rockport First Church, Ipswich First Church of Rowley First Church in Salem, Unitarian First Church of the Nazarene, Lynn First Congregational Church of Georgetown First Congregational Church, Hamilton First Universalist Church, Essex First Universalist Society, Salem Gloucester Unitarian Universalist Church Holy Trinity United Methodist Church, Danvers Immanuel Baptist, Ipswich North Shore Community Baptist Church, Beverly Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church, Ipswich Rockport United Methodist Church St. Paul Lutheran Church, Gloucester St. Stephen's United Methodist Church, Marblehead Tabernacle Congregational Church UCC, Salem Temple B'nai Abraham, Beverly Temple Ner Tamid, Peabody Temple Shalom, Salem Unitarian Universalist Society of Rockport West Gloucester Trinitarian Congregational Church