Churches in Family Promise program
These area churches have agreed to serve as hosts for homeless families as part of the Family Promise program.
Each church hosts up to four families for a one-week period:
• First Christian Church, 1000 Ky.• First Southern Baptist, 4300 W. Sixth St.• Bridgepoint, 601 W. 29th Terrace• Victory Bible, 1942 Mass. • Plymouth Congregational, 925 Vt. • Morning Star, 998 N. 1771 Road• Clinton Parkway Assembly of God, 3200 Clinton Parkway• Grace Evangelical Presbyterian Church, 3312 Calvin Drive• First Baptist, 1330 Kasold Drive• St. Margaret’s Episcopal, 5700 W. Sixth St.
The program also operates a full-time day center at a commercially zoned house at 905 Tenn.
Joe Reitz was facing a situation that many before him have faced at Lawrence City Hall.
The leader of the nonprofit homeless service organization Family Promise had been working for months to get the necessary City Hall approvals to let his project move forward.
To Reitz’s way of thinking, what he wanted to do was simple. He wanted to use Lawrence churches to serve as temporary shelters for homeless families with children.
One church per week would allow up to four families to stay overnight on church property. Church volunteers would provide a morning and evening meal and would provide overnight supervision. During the day, the families — all of which have been screened — would go to a permanent day center where they would have access to showers, computers and other needs.
But then, the City Hall process began in earnest. A new ordinance would need to be written, new definitions would need to be added to city code, a city advisory board would need to review the ideas and perhaps costly site plans would need to be filed.
Reitz, despite the setbacks, stuck with the process for more than a year. On Oct. 28, he and his fellow volunteers were about to get what they had longed worked for: City approval.
But they didn’t.
Let’s do research
Instead, they got a delay. An attorney with Grace Evangelical Presbyterian Church, 3312 Calvin Drive, objected to the proposed ordinance. He said the city regulations would be an unconstitutional limitation on how churches could practice their faith. The city’s attorneys recommended that city commissioners delay approving the ordinance until more research could be done.
But here was Joe Reitz’s problem: It was getting cold.
“We had the reality of kids being out in the cold, and I knew we were in a position to help some of them,” Reitz said.
So, a few days after the Oct. 28 meeting, Reitz did what many, many others who have stood at the City Commission podium have wanted to do — he told City Hall leaders, ordinance or no ordinance, he was starting his program.
“It was getting ready to snow, and I just said, ‘Let’s do it,’” Reitz said.
And here’s where the story gets really weird for City Hall standards.
No one at City Hall did anything to stop him.
And no one at City Hall did anything to notify the public that the Family Promise program had begun and that 11 churches across the city were now periodically being used as temporary homeless shelters.
Generally, city commissioners also weren’t informed. Both Mayor Mike Dever and City Commissioner Boog Highberger said they learned the program had begun operations while attending a homeless town hall meeting in mid-January, where individuals involved with Family Promise told the crowd the program was operating.
“I thought maybe I had missed something,” Highberger said.
City Hall staff members confirmed that they knew the program had been in operation for several months. The program opened its doors for business on Nov. 16, said Valerie Miller-Coleman, executive director for Lawrence’s Family Promise operations. Scott McCullough, the city’s director of planning and development services, said the group made him aware of their operations roughly around that time.
No neighborhood leaders have reported any problems associated with Family Promise operations, and many specifically have said they support the work the group is doing. Some neighborhoods were notified directly by Family Promise that a church in their neighborhood was being used for the program.
Reitz said the group had sent out letters to properties within 200 feet of church properties, which would be a requirement under the ordinance that has not yet been passed. That ordinance also would require that a letter be sent to the neighborhood associations. It is not clear how often Family Promise has done that.
‘Here to help’
Bonnie Johnson, president of the Indian Hills Neighborhood Association, said she never received a letter from the organization, despite a neighborhood church being used as a shelter. She said she did not think many residents in her neighborhood — the area northwest of 31st and Louisiana — were aware of the activity.
Johnson said neighbors may not have any concerns with the program, but she was disappointed that City Hall didn’t do more to keep neighborhoods up-to-date.
“Just drop us a letter,” Johnson said. “It is not that hard. The city knows who we are. And we’re here to help. I think sometimes they think neighborhood associations are just here to cause problems or conflict.”
Highberger also said he had some concerns that city staff had not done anything to notify the public that there had been a change in the issue. When commissioners delayed passage of the ordinance in late October, there was no mention that the program would be allowed to operate without the ordinance.
The issue also had been one that drew considerable public interest. City Commission meetings involving the ordinance generally filled the lobby with interested residents.
“That’s a good question,” Highberger said when asked why a public update wasn’t given. “We should talk about it in public.”
The need is large
Reitz said the program has quite a story to tell.
The program has served 14 people thus far and currently is serving three families.
“The majority of them have been single moms with kids,” Reitz said.
He said the need for a program that focuses solely on homeless families is large. The program is set up to serve four families at a time, and already there is a waiting list.
Reitz — who is retired from the Kansas University business school — began exploring the idea for a program that serves homeless families in 2007, after he saw the need first-hand as a director of the not-for-profit Leo Center.
“I didn’t know we had homeless kids in this town until a couple of years ago when I started seeing them at the center,” Reitz said. “We have a lot of families in this town that live in their cars.”
Miller-Coleman, the project’s director, said the program has been working well, with church volunteers being extremely reliable. Reitz said the program — which has been used in about 130 other communities — may represent a way forward for the city as it struggles with its homeless programs.
The Family Promise program is seeking no city funding. Instead, it relies on donations and volunteers for its $120,000 annual budget. Nationally, the program has been successful. Leaders of Family Promise estimate that about 80 percent of all people who enter the program are placed in permanent or transitional housing within about 60 to 90 days.
Reitz said already the scenes in Lawrence have been gratifying. He said most of the children served are toddlers.
“I go to the day center and I see kids running around in diapers,” Reitz said. “I think, ‘I’m sure glad they are inside.’”
But the story may be just beginning. City Hall leaders said just because they haven’t taken any enforcement action against the Family Promise program yet does not mean they won’t in the future.
Toni Wheeler, the city’s director of legal services, said the city does have concerns that the Family Promise program began before the city ordinance was approved. But she said enforcement has not been taken because the city wants to make sure it has the legal authority to take such enforcement action against religious institutions.
“One way or the other, this is going to have to be addressed,” said McCullough, whose department oversees zoning enforcement for the city.
If the city decides that the First Amendment prohibits it from regulating churches, that could create several other significant issues. For example, The Salvation Army is a church that currently operates a homeless shelter at 10th and New Hampshire streets. It historically has been subject to city regulations. Theoretically, other homeless shelters could open in the city as part of a church with little regulation.
If the city decides it does have the ability to regulate the churches, Family Promise may be forced to undo some of what it has done.
Reitz said that thought does not keep him awake at night. He said he does not regret moving ahead with the project.
“People were talking about ordinances and resolutions, and that is fine,” Reitz said. “But I thought all of those were artificial barriers. We were in a position to help people, and that is what we needed to do.
“If we’re in trouble, it is trouble I’m certainly willing to bear.”