When the Great Recession started to overtake our country in 2008, there were articles about local food banks in Union and Essex counties not having enough food to stock their shelves. It was something that had been completely unanticipated. The traditional challenge facing food banks was being understaffed or underfunded. It was unusual to have no food to give out.
We immediately raised this problem at our next Social Action Committee meeting. The decision was made to allocate a portion of our budget to donating to local food banks and pantries.
One of our members with a background in working with the homeless and hungry volunteered to handle the initiative. As usual, that member not only took his leadership of that initiative seriously, he went beyond his initial charge. He started to involve our Religious Education program to help make and distribute sandwiches to the homeless throughout not just Northern New Jersey, but also parts of Manhattan. In addition, he actively engaged with and vetted partner organizations to make sure the Social Action Committee is being a good steward of its budget. Another of our members, organized our congregation to help serve meals to the homeless through an organization called SHIP (Summit Helping its People). The two of them transformed our Social Action Committee’s hunger initiative into something far larger than it otherwise would have been.
An integral part of that organic process within our congregation involved at least two anonymous members who made allocated donations which collectively came to several thousand dollars for our hunger initiative. When coupled with money from our existing base budget, the Hunger Initiative took on incredible momentum, which continues to this day.
We have worked to address the problem of homelessness by working with HomeFirst. That organization is one of the pre-eminent charities helping to house and advocate for the homeless in Northern New Jersey. Our congregation has a unique bond with HomeFirst since we were one of the houses of worship that started it in the 1980’s (when it was called the Interfaith Council for the Homeless of Union County).
A number of years ago, our Social Action Committee opened a dialogue with HomeFirst to determine how much it would cost to fund one transitional housing unit for a year. The figure was $15,000.00.
Such a unit provides the family with the stability of living in an actual apartment of its own for up to a year to set down roots in the community by becoming gainfully employed; sending their children to the local public school; and otherwise becoming a productive and active member of the community. They are “transitional” in the sense that the family must move out within the year. However, the fact that they have this housing and HomeFirst’s surrounding social programs without cost gives them the breathing room to achieve the stability to re-launch themselves into the world.
We have been able to consistently collect $7,500.00 from four Sunday offertory plates, which we match from our Social Action Committee budget to aggregate to a total of $15,000.00, which is approximate cost of one transitional housing unit and surrounding services.
All of this is in addition to an elaborate program that has been ongoing in our congregation for many years in which we work with HomeFirst’s hospitality network to house our homeless guests for two to four weeks during Thanksgiving and the December holidays. Our congregation has taken its responsibility for these time periods because HomeFirst has found it difficult to find volunteers for this busy time of the year. Of course, other congregations also participate actively in this program throughout the year. In every sense of the word, it is a joint effort.
While our homeless friends stay with us, our members sign up to accompany them to dinner; provide enrichment to their children; and see to their needs. This program has been a tremendous success and is one of the hallmarks of our congregation’s community outreach.
As with all such efforts, there is a periodic need to reassess and augment the approach. Recently, we have begun a dialogue with HomeFirst to modify our program to move beyond simply temporarily housing the homeless in our Church and to tackle this problem in a larger, more overarching context. We anticipate that the program will evolve and grow as we complete this effort to reinvigorate our partnership with HomeFirst.