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New City Initiative teaches congregations how to lend a hand

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Rachel Henderson and her sons, Jessie, 4, and Isaac,10, found help through the Village Support Network, a program driven by the New City Initiative, which aims to involve more Portland-area churches in programs to aid homeless people. For three years, Rachel Henderson grappled with homelessness while raising her three young boys in Portland. In March, she began her transition from staying in a shelter to living in a home of her own. The move wouldn’t have been possible, Henderson says, without faith, and the city’s faith community.

Henderson and her children were living in a family shelter run by the First United Methodist Church of Portland in Goose Hollow. When it came time to move out of the shelter, she turned to the New City Initiative, an organization that teaches churches and synagogues how they can directly help homeless families.

The organization partners with local faith communities to provide assistance to the home less and supplement aid being provided by other service programs in the city.

“There’s help,” Henderson said. “But there is only help for so long.”

Last week, Portland city commissioners praised the New City Initiative’s success in the community, in particular singling out its Village Support Network program, which allows congregations to form teams and work directly with individual homeless families to become self-sufficient.

“The faith community is doing a lot for Portland,” said Portland Mayor Charlie Hales. “And there is a lot to do.”

In 2010, the New City Initiative grew out of a project under JOIN, a Southeast Portland nonprofit that works with the homeless. During the past four years the initiative has approached several of the city’s approximately 500 faith communities.

Last year, a total of 18 congregations agreed to work with 15 homeless families through the program. All but one of those families are still housed, according to New City Initiative Program Director Susanna Rempel. In addition, in 11 of the 14 families, at least one parent has maintained or found a source of employment.

Eighteen congregations of the city’s 500 faith communities may not seem like much, but consider that five years ago city Commissioner Nick Fish and county Commissioner Deborah Kafoury sent a letter to 240 local congregations begging for help housing homeless families. Not one church or synagogue responded to their plea.

Since the Village Support Network started, about 40 congregations contributed volunteers to help the homeless, says Paul Schroeder the executive director of New City Initiative.

Barbara Ross, a member of the Wy’East Unitarian Universalist congregation, in Northeast Portland, participated in the Village Support Network last year and said there are congregations that want to help, but first the congregations themselves need help.

“These are faith communities that want to do good, but often, we don’t have a way to reach out to support homeless people,” Ross told city commissioners last week.

The Village Support Network provided structure and training that is not always easy to come by for those aiming to get involved, she said.

To participate with the Village Support Network, volunteers from local congregations form four- to six-person teams that go through training led by New City Initiative staff and then get assigned a family to help.

The New City Initiative hosts several programs that connect the faith community with local nonprofits that help the homeless. One, UpstART, helps women affected by homelessness and at risk of sexual violence take donated jewelry and clean, repair and modify it before eventually selling the jewelry. The program provided 68 hours of employment and hosted more than 40 sessions last year — numbers that are on track to double this year, according to Rempel.

The Healthy Sisters program, which gives women transportation to and from medical appointments, provided 56 rides last year — and that number is expected to double this year, Rempel said.

Henderson says the church-led efforts were instrumental in helping her become self-sufficient. She met monthly with her team from Southeast-Portland’s Sunnyside Adventist Church. Volunteers helped her search for a job and provided transportation to visit potential colleges, she says.

“Through my whole three years of homelessness, I felt like I kind of hit rock bottom,” she said. “My faith was all I had left.”

Nonprofit hopes to get city funding

A resolution by the Portland City Council on June 25 praised the work of the New City Initiative. Initiative backers say they would like to build on that work and possibly receive city funding in the future.

New City Initiative Program Director Susanna Rempel says the organization aims to increase the number of participating congregations to 50 by 2015. She says she has heard talk of a funding resolution to be brought before the council.

The resolution potentially could provide $25,000 to New City Initiative, if the organization could match that amount, Rempel says.

Following last Wednesday’s meeting, the organization plans to assemble a steering committee, representing New City Initiative staff, local faith leaders, and members from Portland and Multnomah counties, said New City Initiative Executive Director Paul Schroeder.

“I feel immense gratitude to the congregations and individuals who have already stepped up to participate,” Schroeder says.

So far, according to Rempel, 14 congregations have committed to working with homeless families in the fall. Nine families have asked for help, and staff are currently recruiting five additional families so each congregation can support a family of its own.

For more information about New City Initiative visit, www.newcityinitiative.net.

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