Monmouth County sits in Central New Jersey, is included in the New York City metropolitan area, and is in the top 1.2% of counties in the United States by measurement of wealth. For the vast majority of its inhabitants, the day begins by waking up in a safe, high-income neighborhood, going to a well-paying, white-collar job, and returning at night to that same neighborhood to get some well-deserved sleep in a warm bed.
However, a different kind of community does exist in Monmouth County, New Jersey. This small community is often neglected, or rather, not even known about by the greater population of the area. For these people, life would be very different. If you were a part of this small community, your day may consist of keeping your children in a day center, working with volunteers to find employment, having to rely on donations for your meals, and spending the night in a church congregation with dozens of other people whose circumstances are similar to your own.
While this situation is not ideal, it provides an invaluable service — keeping people from living on the street, and providing them with safety, security, nourishment, and the prospect of finding a job that can provide them a means to get back on their feet and support themselves and their families.
That is the goal of Family Promise® of Monmouth County. Although the organization’s roots are in New Jersey, Family Promise operates in 42 states, with more than 200 affiliates and over 180,000 active volunteers. Elaine Young first became involved with the Monmouth County division of in 2001, when that branch of Family Promise asked for a volunteer coordinator.
Elaine comes from a mental health counselor background, a role which she still continues to this day, with a private practice in New Jersey. After seven years of providing shelter, food, and job opportunities for the homeless in the area, she joined the executive board. In 2011, Elaine became Board President of Family Promise of Monmouth County. This branch of Family Promise had begun forming in 1999, but it wasn’t until 2001 that it was first able to open its doors and offer its services to guests.
“I originally started working at one of the congregations that would house the homeless in [Monmouth County],” said Elaine. The board before Elaine’s appointment “did the legwork” initially, gathering funding, identifying which congregations were candidates for hosting the homeless, and convincing those same congregations to be hosts for Family Promise. The principle services that a Family Promise congregation provides is that of a temporary place of refuge for the homeless until they can support themselves and move out.
“Each congregation houses people for a week,” noted Elaine. Those who need shelter may need to rotate from one congregation to another while they seek employment and financial stability. While the Family Promise organization has been around for over 25 years, each branch must face individual challenges.
“There are always hurdles for nonprofits,” said Elaine. “We have hurdles even now.” She breaks these issues down into categories. Some are internal problems— for instance, it’s a continual struggle to have enough volunteers, and it is necessary to make sure that those who do volunteer are equipped to deal appropriately with the homeless patrons.
Volunteers may have preconceived views that the homeless don’t have jobs for lack of initiative, or that they are dangerous. Elaine notes that there is extensive training in place to alleviate that sentiment at Family Promise.
“Many of our volunteers have never been in direct contact with the homeless,” Elaine noted. “So we have a hurdle of overcoming that.” This “place of judgment” may be difficult to change, but volunteers almost always “have their expectations blown” by their interactions with the people sheltered by the congregation. There is a notion that the majority of the homeless are in that position by their own doing — that they are too lazy to find a job, that they are content to live on government assistance and handouts, or that they are criminals and drug addicts with habits that consume all of their income. While these stereotypes certainly are true for some of the people that Elaine helps, they are in the vast minority.
“The majority of people who come through [Family Promise of Monmouth County] are parents with children. The working poor,” said Elaine. “They’re often working full-time at minimum wage and just making ends meet. All it takes is a small issue — you get laid off, you have to take time off because your child is sick — and now you’re behind on bills, you’re out of your savings.” It’s a predicament that could happen to many who live paycheck to paycheck.
Another issue that often causes people to have to depend on places like Family Promise is disability; the disabled can have limited job opportunities, as they may not be considered for many positions that would be available at their experience level. While Family Promise works to find jobs for everyone they house, the
Outside of the internal struggles of running a division of Family Promise, there are the external ones. First there is the “not in my backyard” problem, as Elaine noted.
“Communities and the local government may not be happy about a congregation starting to house the homeless.” Residents, especially those of communities with high socioeconomic standing, such as Monmouth County, are often opposed to the sudden influx of homeless to the area. In one case, Elaine recalled the mayor of a town becoming personally involved and shutting down the plan of opening a day center at a rectory. In that case, Family Promise had to abandon the plan to use that specific rectory for housing.
Another factor that drove many to homelessness was Superstorm Sandy. A lot of affordable housing was destroyed, and the storm displaced hundreds of people in Monmouth County who were already from a place of low economic standing. There is still not enough housing for those who have been displaced, as not all of the destroyed affordable housing has been rebuilt.
More recently, there has been a trend in decreasing government assistance for nonprofits, in general.
“The current administration has decreased overall funding to nonprofits,” said Elaine “and [Family Promise of Monmouth County] gets one-third of our budget from various HUD [Housing and Urban Development] grants for the homeless.”
Elaine believes there has been a recent attitude shift towards nonprofit causes; a “pendulum swing.” She says that an “out for me” mindset is being reinforced by top government, and that people are picking up on that. She notes that over time, giving fluctuates greatly, but we are currently in a large dip.
“That kind of attitude trickles down form the top — the idea of why help [the homeless] if they don’t help themselves?” As a result, volunteerism has gone down significantly. Not just in New Jersey, but nationwide. As it currently stands, Family Promise of Monmouth County has somewhere between 1,000 and 1,300 volunteers, with 13 main congregations and about 20 supporting congregations scattered around the United States.
Still, the Family Promise model is a model that works. Elaine thinks the business model of the Monmouth County branch has remained pretty much the same for the entire time she has been on the executive board. While the day-to-day responsibilities of the shelter have been almost the same for those 16 years, the way her organization reaches its audience, and the way it helps its patrons find jobs, has changed.
“Technology has made an impact in how we help people,” said Elaine. “It’s now a priority to give graduating students a laptop, since that’s the key to finding careers and having job skills.” Technology has also enabled Family Promise of Monmouth County to better reach potential patrons. A Facebook page, an organization website, and a Twitter account have raised awareness about the organization, getting Elaine in touch with both those seeking the services of the congregations and those who wish to volunteer at a site.
Elaine believes that she is continually learning, and that it is this experience that has made her better equipped to run the organization. Still, she thinks there is more to be done.
“I would want to do more than house families for up to 90 days,” she said, “including getting [the Family Promise of Monmouth County homeless] permanent housing, and subsidizing them so they can have better access to schools and jobs.” She hopes that these advantages would have long-term impact on the people who stay at one of the congregations. “With [those advantages], people will eventually be able to support themselves, so they won’t have to worry about a repeat need for shelter housing.” Unfortunately, those services are currently unavailable to participating congregations of Family Promise of Monmouth County. There is just not enough of a budget, a common problem among nonprofits.
Making progress towards such goals is difficult, but awareness may be the first step. Elaine sees the value of a platform like Seedlr, which provides an online community for users to post about specific nonprofits, along with the ability to donate to those nonprofits directly through the site. According to Elaine, platforms like Facebook and Twitter are limited, because posts are seen only by people who have an account with those platforms.
Online giving, available through outlets such as Seedlr and nonprofit websites, have advantages over traditional mail donations. Nonprofits can utilize gifts almost immediately, without having to wait for the mail to arrive and then first having to cash a check and wait for it to clear. The advent of online donations, however, is often slow-going.
“We’re pretty evenly split when it comes to how people give,” said Elaine. “A lot of our donors are older, and they prefer to go ‘old-school’ by sending a check.”
Still, any donations are much better than none at all. If you would like to become involved with supporting Family Promise of Monmouth County, there are several ways to do so. If you are locally-based in the Monmouth County area, you can call directly and volunteer. This may include providing food, cleaning facilities, or helping find jobs for the homeless in Family Promise congregations. You can also donate through the Family Promise website or by mail. However you choose to help, you can be secure in the knowledge that you are making a real difference for those with nowhere else to go. And it’s that difference that keeps Elaine so passionate about the organization.
“The Board President position is voluntary for me,” said Elaine. She believes that it’s that love for her work that is necessary for any position in the nonprofit field. “You need to make sure you love it first. Sometimes it’s a lot of work. It’s got to be something you can put your heart into.” And that’s a promise Elaine plans on keeping.