A mom gave birth to this baby while her family was homeless in the summer of 2018. The families in the Family Promise of Beaverton program land there for a number of reasons, including losing a job, divorce and landlords who evict tenants because of “doubling up.” (Courtesy Lois O’Halleran)
A mom gave birth to this baby while her family was homeless in the summer of 2018. The families in the Family Promise of Beaverton program land there for a number of reasons, including losing a job, divorce and landlords who evict tenants because of “doubling up.” (Courtesy Lois O’Halleran)
BEAVERTON — January 2017 provided great memories for Lois O’Halleran’s children, students at St. Mary of the Valley and Jesuit. Snow had closed the schools for nine days, so it was a veritable second Christmas vacation. They sledded, made snowmen and flung snowballs. They’d come inside to warm up with hot chocolate as their snow-encrusted clothes spun in the dryer.

O’Halleran, a parishioner at St. Juan Diego and member of an unofficial coalition seeking solutions to homelessness, delighted in their fun. And yet she was simultaneously haunted by the knowledge that for homeless children the snowstorms were a nightmare. She imagined them, trapped in cold cars, having to brave the cold for bathroom trips — bathroom trips where? — and not daring to play in the snow because their wet clothes would stay wet.

This wasn’t just a handful of children — although that would already be too many. During the 2016–17 school year, 1,720 students in the Beaverton School District experienced homelessness. Of those, 97 were unsheltered — not sleeping on their mother’s friend’s couch, not doubled up with an aunt’s family, not even at a shelter. They had no place to stay.

It’s not just Beaverton. Oregon has a disproportionately high rate of homelessness. The Oregon Department of Education reported almost 22,000 students homeless at some point in the 2017-18 school year.

O’Halleran, a woman always in motion, together with several others decided their coalition needed to act. They had already taken the first steps, voting in June 2016 to open Family Promise of Beaverton — a group of volunteers from various churches working to provide shelter for families.

“We pushed like crazy,” said O’Halleran. “We were opening no matter what.”

Family Promise of Beaverton welcomed its first guests in March 2018.

O’Halleran praises the Family Promise model, a national success story. “They have a template that allows busy people to make a difference.”

Family Promise of Beaverton’s 750 volunteers work through a coalition of 17 church communities and government organizations. Each takes a turn to provide shelter and meals for three or four homeless families, a week at a time. Homeless parents work closely with the Family Promise caseworker, who helps them find work, permanent housing or whatever they’re up against.

If a particular organization doesn’t have a physical space that allows it to provide shelter, then it can partner with another that does. St. Juan Diego Parish, for instance, partners with the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon, who have rooms on their campus.

Peggy Brice, office manager at St. Juan Diego, said the effort has been a boon for the parish. “Family Promise has revitalized and reenergized all the parish’s ministries,” she said.

Sister Rita Watkins is the Family Promise liaison at the sisters’ campus. “They’re typical little kids,” she said of the guests’ children.

Sister Rita would know. She’s been a Sister of St. Mary of Oregon for 58 years, much of that time ministering as a teacher and principal.

“This has been a dream of mine for years, to help some homeless families,” she said.

She’s pleased with Family Promise, which gives the volunteers clear guidelines. For instance, volunteers working directly with the families must remember that the parents are the ones who correct the children.

“We just enjoy them,” Sister Rita said.

She’s also pleased that the City of Beaverton is a partnering host, a first for Family Promise.

Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle said that working with Family Promise is one of many efforts the city has taken to solve the cruel problem of homelessness. “There’s a crying need,” he said.

He said the city is spending more than a million dollars to alleviate homelessness, including funding a severe weather shelter, an additional police position and a behavioral health liaison at the courthouse and a pilot program that sets up safe parking areas for people who must live in their vehicles.

On the brink

The crisis is statewide.

A March study from ECONorthwest, “Homelessness in Oregon: A Review of Trends, Causes and Policy Options,” found 156,000 households across Oregon on the brink of homelessness, without enough savings for an emergency and living paycheck to paycheck.

For Sharon, a former guest at Family Promise of Beaverton, homelessness came after she’d been scammed.

She seems recovered now, her voice strong as she tells her story in her sunny new Beaverton apartment, her little black cat prancing in and out, her office desk and chair the only furniture in the compact, spotless living room.

Sharon and her son, Dillon (not their real names), had moved to Portland after she left a bad relationship.

Once here, she rented an apartment, piecing together income from a steady job plus freelancing gigs like dog walking. Then the business where she worked closed its doors. She quickly found another job that promised more income — although, as the old saying goes, she’d have to spend some money to make some money. She’d need to drive to various clients, so she spent her savings on a car.

The paychecks never came. She discovered her employer, who had presented herself as heading a small business with several employees, was in fact playing the roles of bookkeeper and scheduler. “I can’t believe I fell for it,” Sharon said.

She and Dillon found themselves with five days to vacate their apartment.

The two worked day and night last autumn to box their few belongings and move them to a storage unit. She had the cash for a couple nights in a cheap hotel. After that they and their little cat were in her car. To move into another place would have been thousands of dollars — first and last month’s rent, a damage deposit, an application and probably a down payment on the utilities.

She didn’t have it. She hadn’t even had the money for their old apartment.

People suggested Dillon might go to a youth shelter, but she wanted them to stick together. Most of the kids in youth shelters were fleeing much rougher situations than her son, an honor student.

She was leery of general shelters for the same reason.

In any case, getting rid of their cat wasn’t an option.

She didn’t know where to turn. Almost accidentally she talked with a counselor at Dillon’s school, who asked her if she’d heard of Family Promise.

She and Dillon went in to interview. “It was such a different experience,” Sharon said. “They treated me like I was a person with a life.”

She’d been concerned that she and Dillon would feel exposed if they accepted help, with people gawking at them. “Being homeless makes you vulnerable in so many ways,” Sharon said.

But instead she felt protected.

Moving from one church to another every week was hard, as was the complicated routine of driving to Sunset Presbyterian Church — from whatever sanctuary they were sleeping at — for a daily shower.

But they were safe, and so was their kitty, who stayed in a kennel that Petco provides, in partnership with Family Promise. They could even visit her.

Mother and son slept at various Beaverton churches for about two months as she worked, saving so she and Dillon could again move into a home of their own.

“I’m so grateful,” she said, admitting that when she and Dillon first got the keys to their new home, she lay down in the middle of the living room, overwhelmed by relief.

Washing machines and shoes

Sunset Presbyterian is the keystone to Family Promise of Beaverton. Its enormous campus not only has rooms where families can spend the night but also showers, washing machines, and an office for the nonprofit and a space for its day center.

The families served come with a variety of problems. Some come from generational homelessness, others lose a job and can no longer make their rent. Some are fleeing abuse. Family Promise volunteers discover the real people within those calamities.

There was the pregnant mom with an infected tooth, and the little boy with swollen, painful feet.

It turned out his shoes were too small.

“Every single family who comes through the door needs shoes,” said O’Halleran.

Families have needed between a few weeks and five and a half months in the program. Six months is the maximum a family can remain. For most shelters, the limit is six weeks, which isn’t usually enough for families to recover.

“What I love about this is that anyone can make a difference,” said Cheryl Hoy, a member of Sunset Presbyterian and Family Promise volunteer.

Nationally, Family Promise has an 88% success rate in finding housing. It has served 950,000 people since its founding in 1986. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush named Family Promise one of the nation’s 21 “Points of Light.” There were 4,500 worthy nominees. Today there are 200 Family Promise affiliates in 43 states. Four are in Oregon.

Sharon, the former guest, thinks Family Promise is successful for at least two reasons: first, the hard work and big hearts of its staff and volunteers. “They’re wonderful people,” she said.

The second reason, she believes, is because the group understands its limitations. They don’t try to help everyone. People with substance abuse and criminal issues aren’t admitted — which made Sharon feel safe and allowed her to focus on getting herself and her son back into a place of their own.

Guests and volunteers alike sign agreements. Homeless parents entering the program must agree to work diligently with the case manager and to respect the hosts’ property, others’ opinions, and the time and energy spent by volunteers.

Volunteers must complete a training, pass a background check, and respect confidentiality and maintain strict boundaries between themselves and guests —

something also expected of children who volunteer.

“Child volunteers may see someone they know from school,” said Sister Rita.

Youthful volunteers must be cautioned against blurting out, “What are you doing here?” or anything else that might make a homeless child feel more sad or embarrassed than they already do.

Proselytizing is against the rules, as is babysitting. “Children must remain under the supervision of their parents,” reads one of Family Promise’s guidelines.

Veteran volunteers

Now, a bit more than a year after the Beaverton group’s launch, Barb Upton, another of the local group’s founders and a member of St. Juan Diego, stood at a podium at the back of the church, giving volunteers a refresher course.

Most of her listeners were veterans from last year. They nodded as she reminded everyone to bring “kindness, flexibility, a listening ear and an open mind,” as well as caution against indulging in their natural curiosity and asking personal questions. “We’re aiming to provide judgment-free hospitality,” Upton said.

“Just listen,” she added. “Not, ‘Yes, that happened to me and this is what I did.’”

Guests are in a fragile place and are experiencing the trauma of loss, she said, with a reminder that children may act out under those circumstances.

Wlnsvey Campos, Family Promise’s caseworker, helps the families fix their problems. Campos has a loving heart, and she’s tough, said O’Halleran.

Campos helps guests learn to help themselves, to understand how to work with organizations that can help them. She also performs some infuriating bureaucratic feats, like expunging unfair eviction notices from guests’ rental records. When developers buy apartment buildings to transform them into salable condos, the process begins with evicting all the tenants. Those no-cause evictions go onto a person’s record the same as if they hadn’t been paying rent.

Most problems stem from a lack of affordable housing, said Campos.

In addition to advocating for them, Campos sits with guests as they fill out their paperwork for housing, teaches a class on maintaining a household, and generally helps with life skills: dealing with debt, organizational skills, keeping spaces organized and more.

“It all plays into housing,” Campos said.

After their guests leave, Family Promise’s director and case worker keep in touch for a year. “Our goal is to never have them in the program again until they’re volunteers themselves,” said O’Halleran.