They are the family ahead of you in the checkout line. He is the familiar face at the coffee shop. She is your child's new friend at school who just moved to town. They live in your town but do not have a home. They are homeless.
I recently volunteered to sleep overnight at one of the many host congregations that provide shelter to homeless families through Family Promise of Bergen County. Family Promise has created a network of host and support congregations that provides temporary housing for working families in need while helping them find jobs and affordable housing. Host congregations provide safe housing for families for three non-consecutive weeks each year on a rotating schedule. Each week, the family’s belongings are packed and moved to the next congregation.
As a support group in this vital program, my congregation provides food, support, and companionship for the many families at each shelter. As a volunteer for the evening, I arrived in the late afternoon to help with dinner brought by other volunteers. After dinner, I played Chutes and Ladders with an excited first grader who belly-laughed loudly each time he made it to the top of the board, and played dominos with one of the older boys who had all of the rules down pat. I threw a football around the nearby park with a seventh grade boy, telling me which way to throw it so he could catch it in full stride.
As it got dark, we made our way inside the church to an auditorium where temporary dividers created small, semi-private rooms for the families and their belongings. As families began getting ready for bed around 7:30 p.m., the room hummed with the familiar bedtime sounds, conversations, and complaints – Put on your pajamas, Did you brush your hair and teeth? Are you sure? Is your bag ready for school? Mom, I don't want to go to bed.
At 8p.m. I turned off the overhead lights, leaving small islands of light dotting the large room. With all lights off by 9, the sounds in the room gracefully receded, the excitement of the day acquiescing to the darkness, its stillness disturbed by the fluttering of sheets, the Shhhhhs, and Go to sleeps. With everyone settling into their beds, I could hear whispered voices, those final reflections of the day, probably about the anxiety of the first day of school, maybe about a job, or maybe those final loving thoughts of the day and a reassuring kiss on the forehead, that things will get better.
While the evening was uneventful, I was up the whole night, restless on my mattress on the stage floor overlooking the auditorium, listening to a nighttime soundtrack, a composition of restlessness, shuffling, coughing, and deep breathing written with dreams of another time and place.
At around 5 a.m., phone alarms rang in scattered series throughout the room and I am up by 5:15 a.m. to turn on the overhead lights. The room quickly sprang to life filled with the ruffling of sheets and shuffling of slippered feet into the kitchen where another volunteer and had started to set up for breakfast, a buffet of yogurt, bananas, cereal, bagels, and a pot of coffee. Everyone must be dressed and upstairs ready for the van that will take them to the YMCA where they can shower before making their way to school and work. The other volunteer and I put away the breakfast and washed the dishes before we left.
These families would return later that evening, met by new volunteers ready to help, these scenes repeating each day until Sunday when their belongings would be packed and moved to the next congregation. How can you help? If your congregation has the room, call Family Promise at (201) 833-8009 to see if you can become a host. As a supporting congregation, you can help organize volunteers and provide breakfast and dinners for the families while helping the children with homework and playing games.
It's easy to volunteer. Donate food for breakfasts and dinner or volunteer to do homework with the kids and play with them. Volunteer to sleepover if you can. You can make such a difference in these families lives.