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Homeless shelter plans finding support

Posted: Monday, May 17, 2004

Tentative plans to create a homeless shelter system on the central Kenai Peninsula are promising and will have national support, a Family Promise representative told organizers last week.

C. Kent Coarsey, a national associate with New Jersey-based Family Promise, met with shelter planners May 10 to discuss the group's plans. Several area pastors, community activists and other citizens have been meeting for the past several months to discuss a system in which local churches could team up to provide services for the peninsula's homeless population. Family Promise is the umbrella entity that includes the Interfaith Hospitality Network, a growing nonprofit organization that supports just such collaborations.

Jane Stein, who temporarily is heading up the local effort, said Family Promise offers a model of service that organizers believe could work for the central peninsula.

"They're giving us a guideline, and we bring our needs to that guideline," she said, introducing Coarsey, who oversaw an IHN network outside Denver for two years and works with Family Promise in Los Angeles.

Coarsey explained the overall concept for the shelter system works like this:

Houses of worship (of any faith) or other interested organizations come together to provide overnight housing for homeless families on a rotating basis. Host groups each are responsible for services for one week, usually three or four times a year. Members of the congregation volunteer to prepare meals and stay overnight with the clients for their designated week, as well as provide transportation to a day center each morning.

At the day center, clients get help and resources to look for work, housing or other needed services. At the end of the day, clients return to the church or host site. The host site and associated volunteers alternate each week.

The general idea is one area organizers have been considering for some time, in part because it is more realistic than building and staffing a full-time shelter. Coarsey, however, spent much of Monday night providing answers to the more detailed questions about the system.

For example, he explained that Family Promise networks work primarily with families with children. Doors are open to referrals, but networks generally have strict rules excluding mentally ill clients who are not on medication, active drug users or victims of domestic abuse (due to safety issues and the presence of other shelter systems that meet such needs). Preliminary screening is done by paid and trained staff, while volunteers are responsible for hosting services, from cooking to laundry to transportation.

To be a host site, churches need a kitchen and fellowship area, bathrooms and room to sleep up to 15 people, with families either in separate rooms or areas separated by partitions. Individual host sites may need to provide bed linens and towels, if showers are available on-site, but beds are bought by the network and transferred from site to site with clients.

Host sites also need 30 to 50 volunteers of ranging involvement to support the families during their stay. Coarsey noted that host churches can team up with "support sites" to provide the necessary number of volunteers.

Volunteers receive training at the beginning of the program but usually just provide the same type of comfort and fellowship they would offer guests in their own home.

At the day center, trained and-or professional staff help direct clients to resources such as state-funded health care, welfare if families are eligible or assistance in finding long-term housing or employment.

One of the biggest concerns for area organizers has been the legal liability participating churches face. Coarsey said because clients stay no longer than a week in any one location, churches don't need additional insurances clients are covered as "guests." Likewise, participating congregations can provide home-cooked food for their short term guests without worrying about state standards, he said.

Heather Hasper, another local organizer, added that Alaska has strong Good Samaritan laws that protect people who go out of their way to help others from most lawsuits.

Ultimately, Coarsey said, he believes such a system would work on the central peninsula, and he told organizers Family Promise could provide plenty of help during the development of a network. He left organizational brochures and guides with organizers and said if the group opts to associate with the national organization, a representative will be sent again to help with the start-up.

He said it usually takes about a year to start a network, though it could be done in six months with a lot of effort. Local organizers have said they hope to have some services available before winter. He also said the average annual budget for a network is about $85,000 most of which is salary and benefits for a full-time director and that plenty of federal grants are available for such programs. He also recommended fund-raising from corporations and individuals.

Area organizers already have a bank account set up for the network-to-be and are starting to collect donations. Bridges also is providing office space and a telephone line for the start-up effort. For more information, call Bridges at 260-3800 or visit the network's Web site at www.bridgesnetwork.org/kiss/index.html.

The next organizational meeting will be at 11:30 a.m. June 10 at Soldotna City Hall. Planning committees will be formed at that time, and more help or input is welcome.

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