ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Throughout the past two years, negative effects of the pandemic have emerged. However, with some of those woes, there have also been some positives.
For example, many organizations had the chance to reflect on their systems in place and changed them in order to better serve the community. That was the case for Family Promise of Greater Rochester.
Formerly known as RAIHN, Family Promise of Greater Rochester has been intertwined in the Rochester community since 2004, serving families at risk of facing homelessness or currently experiencing homelessness.
It’s a state of living that has captured over 326,000 people nationwide, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That number was down 8% since the year prior to the pandemic, and with changing numbers, comes changing programs.
Family Promise Executive Director Kim Hunt-Uzelac said the pandemic acted as a turning point for the organization. Prior to COVID, they followed a congregational model where families would spend time at their day center on Webster Avenue and then be bussed to various participating faith organizations for the overnight hours.
They would have mattresses lined up where everyone would stay together collectively. When the pandemic hit, that model was no longer safe so the organization transitioned to hotel stays and now more permanently, the apartment stays.
“Over the course of the two years, we’ve done some really deep reflection on our program and realized that using apartments is more family-centered,” Hunt-Uzelac said. “It’s more trauma-informed so families don’t have to move every week from congregation to congregation into a new space, often a white space because some of our congregations are in other parts of the city or the suburbs so it’s much more equitable to keep families in apartments.”
Currently, families are housed in one of the organization’s six apartments where they receive guidance and support on how to get back on their feet. That means shelter isn’t the only service Family Promise provides. Overall, the organization has three core programs.
“Our shelter program, which assists families who are homeless. Prevention and Diversion Program, which assists families who are at risk of homelessness, and Aftercare and Stabilization, which follows up with families who are in our shelter program and transition into housing,” Hunt-Uzelac explained.
Whether a family is in need of shelter, help with rent payments or a security deposit, Family Promise provides it.
“It’s like the full cycle,” she said. “It’s great to catch people upstream before they fall into homelessness. The prevention and diversion program is catching families before eviction or before they enter the shelter system, or have a homelessness episode. If a family does happen to become evicted or fall into homelessness, we have our shelter program.”
Hunt-Uzelac adds one of the biggest misconceptions about folks facing homelessness is that they’re not employed. She said almost all of her families have employed parents, but with the cost of living at such a high, along with low pay rates, falling into homelessness is easier than you think.
“Most of our families have never been homeless before in their lives. They don’t deal with addiction issues, they don’t have serious mental health issues,” she said. “They just lost their housing and they fell on hard times. Maybe a child was in the hospital, and they didn’t have time off from work and couldn’t pay their rent that month, and lost their housing. So, it really is a blip for most families, and then they get back on their feet. Most of them still live in poverty, but they manage to maintain housing going forward. I think that’s probably a perception that most people have, that folks kind of cycle in and out of homelessness, and that’s just not true.”
With every nonprofit comes funding instability. Hunt-Uzelac explains Family Promise can only serve as many families as they have funds for. In just the first week of June, Family Promise received 118 requests for help. However, with the funding they have now, they are only able to assist eight to ten families a month.
“Of the calls and the requests coming in, we can help about 3%, which is heartbreaking,” Hunt-Uzelac said. “The need is so high, we just do our best to meet it.”
Hunt-Uzelac said homelessness has always been an issue and will likely always be an issue, however, she says to even begin to move forward, we must acknowledge our history.
“If we look back through the history of the United States we’ll see that most folks live in poverty and most folks that we’re seeing in our programs are people of color. So, you have to look at systemic inequities that have been part of our nation for so long,” Hunt-Uzelac said.
Hunt-Uzelac lists topics of redlining, unfair distribution of loans, and unaddressed topics of mental health as aspects of U.S. history that have led us to the current state of homelessness.
“If you look back through history, there are a lot of periods that can point to where we’re at today and how to address that,” she said. “I’m not sure I think there’s a lot more dialogue happening now about inequity, and why that occurred, it’s kind of the underpinnings of our nation. I think we do need to acknowledge it in order to move forward.”
Above all else, Hunt-Uzelac’s message remains clear:
“We’re all connected as human beings. It’s really easy to ‘other’ a group of people because they’re living in poverty, or they live in a different neighborhood. But I just want to share a message that we’re all human beings and we’re all connected and the families that we see love their children deeply and want the best for their children and want the best for themselves.”
Donations to Family Promise can be made at fpgroc.org.