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Embracing Change

(originally published on April 6th, 2021)

Below is our report on the results of the Otto Bremer grant. We are so proud of everyone involved in our organization and how flexible they have been during the pandemic. Thank you! Q1. Did the nature of the work change from the initial proposal request? (Briefly describe the specific work you initially proposed, and if the work changed during the grant period.) Family Promise of Waukesha County requested an emergency grant to help us to provide shelter to families experiencing homelessness and funds to support a homelessness prevention program. Since 2014, our organization has partnered with local congregations to provide shelter. The Family Homelessness Prevention Program was a new program that we started in response to Covid-19. When we wrote our request, our shelter program had just been suspended because it was based in church buildings using congregational volunteers. All of our partner churches suspended in-person services and would not allow any groups to gather within their space. Even today we are not able to use the churches for shelter. At that time, we had no idea that the faith communities who worked with us would not be able to help us provide shelter. We also did not anticipate that a moratorium on evictions would remain in place. This is why the homelessness prevention program was so important. Even though we were not able to provide shelter for most of the year, with a pandemic, we knew there would be an ever increasing need. In November 2020, we found a new way to provide shelter. We started an Apartment Shelter Program. In this approach to offering families shelter, Family Promise leased an apartment and used it as a temporary shelter for one family at a time. This was valuable because families could have secure and safe housing without worrying about spreading Covid-19. Overall, the nature of our work did not change. Our mission continues to be helping families to achieve and maintain independence. Our proposal was to help with shelter and provide prevention funds. We did accomplish this by utilizing the grant to prevent family homelessness through rent, mortgage, utility assistance and case management. Writing this report makes us recognize how necessary it was to adapt and respond to ever changing needs. Q2. What were you able to achieve as a result of this grant? As a result of the Otto Bremer grant, Family Promise of Waukesha County was able to begin two new programs to serve families experiencing homelessness. The first program is called the Family Homelessness Prevention Program. Through this program we were able to provide rent/mortgage, utility and transportation assistance. Wisconsin shut down due to Covid-19 in the middle of March. It was necessary to respond creatively, quickly and decisively. Within three weeks, we had developed criteria for distribution, an application and selection process, marketed the program, and received enough funds to begin helping families. Our first application was received April 8, 2020. This was a significant shift for our organization. The previous six years, Family Promise of Waukesha County ran a volunteer based organization. This meant that we had very low overhead. We did not have to pay for a shelter facility. Volunteers were essentially our staff. Therefore, starting a new program, whose premise was to distribute money, was an enormous change for us. It could not have happened without the financial support of the Otto Bremer Trust, individual donations, and other foundations who supported this new program. Through the Prevention Program we were able to serve 35 unique households, which includes 51 adults and 81 minor children. Some of these families received both rent and utility assistance. A few received rent more than once. These 35 unique households were served a total of 58 instances. Of the 35 households, 37% are white, 37% are two or more races, and 26% are black. 18 households are led by a single mom. 11 households have a monthly income of less than $1,000. Through the Homelessness Prevention Program, we distributed $48,350 for rent and mortgage assistance, $3,584 for utility assistance, and $685 for car repairs. We spent $22,000 on case management for this program. To give these numbers context, in 2019 Family Promise provided shelter to 21 families and a total of 88 individuals. We saw a 66% increase of families served and a 50% increase of individuals served. Without the Otto Bremer Trust, none of these families would have been helped. We are happy to report all of them remain in their homes. Yet the results are not just a set of numbers. It made a difference in the lives of many families like Kayla Ann’s. Kayla Ann is a single mom who was busy working as an event planner for residents living in a high-rise in downtown Milwaukee. When Covid-19 hit, all of the events stopped. Her hours decreased drastically, and then finally in July she lost her job. “It hit me hard, and I wasn’t sure how I would pay for my rent. I had my three-year-old son, and I didn’t know what to do. This was the first time as an adult that I needed to ask for help.” When she reached out to Family Promise our Case Manager contacted her to begin the process. Besides helping with rent, Christina would bring supplies to help her during a challenging time. “She brought me some home goods, cleaning products, snacks, and tissues, and the program helped me with my rent and WE Energies bill. Christina was so personable and told me if I ever needed anything just to give her a call,” says Kayla Ann. The caring connections that I received from Family Promise and Christina were the biggest blessings. It was more than helping me with my rent and bills. I was also given hope.” Kayla Ann applied for a product stylist position in the photo studio at the Kohl’s Corporation. After a rigorous application process, Kayla learned she was hired and would begin her new career on January 18. “I found out on Christmas Eve that I was hired, and Christina was the first person I told. I went to college for interior design, so I am living my life’s passion,” she said. “Things are starting to turn around, and I am so grateful.” All 35 families have a story as to why they needed help and how the Family Homelessness Prevention Program has made an impact in their lives. This program is saving families the trauma and chaos of experiencing homelessness. A recent statistic says that 30% of homeless adults experienced homelessness as children. The support of Otto Bremer Trust is giving these children a brighter future without homelessness. Another result is the Apartment Shelter Program. Since December, we provided shelter to three families. This program is going to grow. It is hopeful that we have found a way to offer shelter in a safe and healthy way. Q3. What, if any, internal or external challenges did you experience and how were they addressed? This entire year was challenging! It was challenging because of the amount of stressors involved. First, no matter what we were going to do, it is being done in the midst of a pandemic. This remains a challenge for everyone. There were so many unknowns and no charted path to follow during a pandemic. A second challenge was that the programs we were implementing were new. We had some direction from other organizations that provide rent assistance, which was helpful, but there were times we found ourselves implementing policy as we were going. A third challenge was the urgency with which families needed assistance. They could not afford to wait for us to figure out the details. Families needed our help now! Besides creating and implementing two new programs during a pandemic, we also purchased a new facility and moved our Day Center. Taken alone the purchase of this facility would have been challenging and stressful for the organization. We did this in the midst of the pandemic while essentially recreating the services of the organization. Overall the Board of Directors was extremely supportive; however, there were moments that the uncertainty of what was ahead was paralyzing for all of us. No one had ever been in this situation, so it is difficult to strategize and plan for the future. We continue to wrestle with what the future holds. Our hope is that we will be able to return to the congregational partnerships. Yet many are still uncertain when they will open up fully again. Keeping our partners engaged when we have restricted face-to-face volunteering is another challenge for the organization. Communication and resilient and flexible leadership is essential during uncertain times. It was important for our leadership to be available to staff as they navigated the pitfalls of new programs. The Board of Directors needed to be able to discuss the ever changing options. Keeping our partners engaged also demanded updates, ways they could get involved, and transparency about what we were facing. Q4. Is there anything else you would like to share? We are extremely proud of our organization. Our friends, volunteers, donors, churches, civic groups, board of directors have rallied around and embraced the necessary changes for our organization to survive and flourish. Writing this grant report and reflecting on the past year has made us recognize how stressful, challenging and dangerous the pandemic was for Family Promise of Waukesha County. We had to stop our main service–providing shelter to families in partnerships with Congregations. Our shift in programming demanded that we fundraise like never before. There was a real possibility that our organization would not have been able to continue. We have made it work because of decisive and flexible organizational leadership, the foundation of community involvement and ownership that was laid for this organization years ago, and the generosity of so many community partners. This includes individuals, businesses, congregations, and civic groups. It has been humbling to witness the generosity of time and talent. Finally, as devastating as the pandemic has been, it is also creating an opportunity. We are learning that preventing a family from becoming homeless is infinitely better than a family actually becoming homeless. It prevents them from experiencing a disruption in their life from which they may never fully heal. In addition, we are learning that if a family needs shelter, encouraging independence and responsibility is healthy for the family. This experience will continue to challenge us to look at ourselves and assess what truly is best for low income families and families experiencing homelessness.

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