Family Promise of Kandiyohi County provides temporary shelter for homeless that leads to independence
WILLMAR — There are wrapped presents under Dunia Hirsi's decorated Christmas tree, but as her 3-year-old daughter, Maya, smiles a canyon-wide grin and skips around the compact apartment it's clear that having a home for the small family is the true gift.
It's something Hirsi didn't know she'd ever have when she found herself homeless in Willmar in 2015 with Maya, who was just 1 year old at the time.
A key part of Hirsi's transition from being homeless to having a home and a job was the temporary refuge she found at area churches involved with Family Promise of Kandiyohi County.
"I am so thankful for what everybody did for me. It was incredible," said Hirsi, who was the first participant in the program in August of 2015.
"People struggled for me to have a good life," she said.
Family Promise is a network of two dozen area churches that pool resources and volunteers to meet a commitment to provide safe shelter to homeless, and serve as a vital link to their independence.
Since it began, the program has provided temporary housing for 100 people, with about half using the program this year.
Of the 30 families served since it began, 21 found secured safe and affordable housing while in the program.
Currently, 11 churches take turns providing overnight sleeping facilities in Sunday school rooms and meals in fellowship halls. Participants arrive at the host church at 5 p.m. and leave by 7 a.m. the next day.
A church serves as host for one week before the portable beds are loaded up and moved to the next church.
Volunteers — including those from 13 additional congregations that support the program but don't provide overnight housing — supply meals, play with the children and spend time talking with the participants.
During the 3½ months she was with the Family Promise program, Hirsi said people were eager to listen to her, help her and acknowledge her feelings.
"They were so helpful," said Hirsi, who said she became a Christian while growing up in a refugee camp in Somalia, where she also became a registered nurse.
She's currently working as a certified nursing assistant in Willmar and is in the process of earning her RN degree here.
Who is homeless?
Typically, about half of the participants have jobs, said Heidi Kohls, program director.
They become homeless due to a variety of life-changing experiences, including health issues and high medical costs.
Some arrive at Family Promise with their possessions in a few plastic garbage bags.
Others may have belongings stashed at homes where they've "couch surfed," which creates challenges when important documents like birth certificates or Social Security cards need to be produced, Kohls said.
Marlin Breems, a Family Promise board member who has become a surrogate "grandpa" to Hirsi and her daughter, said "whatever stereotypes you have of homeless people" is quickly changed by spending time with them.
Although participants don't have to have local roots, so far, most have come from Kandiyohi County or neighboring counties.
The demographics of the participants reflects that of the community, with a majority being white, Breems said.
After leaving the host church in the morning, participants who are employed go to their jobs and the children go to school.
Unemployed participants can spend daytime hours at the Family Promise "home base" on the upper floor of First Presbyterian Church in Willmar where they can access computers to search for jobs or housing, and learn life-skills like job retention, managing budgets or nutrition.
There are also facilities there to wash clothes, shower, space for young children to play, a small kitchen for simple meals to be prepared and a living room for families to gather together.
Independence and dignity
Most participants use the program for one to three months. Not having expenses during their stay gives them time to save money for a housing deposit, Kohls said.
During the first year when the program was getting its feet on the ground, it served three families for a total of nine people.
In 2016 seven families were served and so far this year 20 families were helped.
Part of the growth is because the program now accepts families without children and single women and because word of the program is spreading, Kohls said.
David Peterson, president of the Family Promise board of directors, said it's not easy for people who find themselves homeless to ask for help.
The program provides services that help families make the transition to independence while also giving them a sense of dignity, Peterson said.
"They make me to stand on my legs," Hirsi said. "They are all lovely people. They are all my family."
When Family Promise was getting started, not everyone from the member churches liked the idea of having homeless individuals sleeping in their church, said Kohls.
But after spending time with participants, even the most ardent opponents became supporters and are some of the most frequent volunteers, she said.
As the number of homeless seeking help increases, Peterson said the Family Promise board hopes to expand the number of churches and volunteers supporting the program with financial donations, time and space.
For more information about how to support Family Promise of Kandiyohi County or how to access its services, call 320-441-2288, or go to www.familypromiseofkc.org.
Family Promise of Kandiyohi County
2015: Three families/9 people
2016: Seven families/36 people
2017: Twenty families/55 people (as of Nov. 1)
Total number of families served: 30 families
Families who've found permanent housing: 21