Program helps homeless get back on their feet

Cecelia Mora-Benimon watches her 2-year-old daughter, Essence, play. Mora-Benimon participated in a Family Promise program that helped her get a two-bedroom house. Family Promise assists homeless families who will graduate into permanent housing.

Cecelia Mora-Benimon knew she was homeless.

But it took what she calls a “breakdown” moment for it to really sink in.

It was last December, and she and her 2-year-old daughter, Essence, had recently been accepted to the Family Promise program, a Lawrence-based nonprofit organization that has been providing shelter to homeless families since November.

Mora-Benimon was in her car waiting for a staff person from Family Promise to return from lunch.

It was cold, and her car’s heater was broken. She was out of formula for her daughter. Her gas tank was empty.

It was then that she really understood her situation.

“I had nowhere to go,” Mora-Benimon said.

Her journey through homelessness began when she moved back to Lawrence from North Dakota to finish her degree at Haskell Indian Nations University. She was staying with family, but when her relatives lost their housing, she and her daughter were without a home for the first time in her life.

“I never thought I’d ever be homeless,” she said.

But after seven months in the Family Promise program, she won’t be homeless for long. Through a federal transitional housing program, Mora-Benimon will be moving into a two-bedroom house in east Lawrence with her daughter this week. She’s eligible for the transitional housing for at least two years, but said that her ultimate goal is to pay for housing without any assistance.

Mora-Benimon joins two other Family Promise families in the past few weeks to become the first to “graduate” from the program and move into their own housing.

It’s a sign that the program is working and making a difference in our community, said Executive Director Valerie Miller-Coleman. “Lives are being changed,” Miller-Colman said.

Initial concerns

The program faced some initial obstacles regarding city shelter regulations, but the City Commission in February backed off proposed regulations that would have required the churches involved to make expensive alterations to their buildings. Miller-Coleman also said that some of the initial concerns from the community about potential problems in the neighborhoods around the churches had not been an issue.

Participants in the program spend their days during the week at a home in Lawrence that also functions as the Family Promise’s headquarters. Family Promise staff members and volunteers work with participants during the day on life skills and job searching, as well as assist with day care and transportation so that participants can attend appointments and interviews.

Miller-Coleman said that all of the families set goals for themselves and the services the program provides is tailored to the needs of participants.

Miller-Coleman said she asks two main questions when participants enter the program: “What do you want for your family and what do you need to get there?”

Participants then spend their nights at area churches staffed by volunteers.

Home-like settings

Morningstar Christian Church, 998 N. 1771 Road, is one of 13 area rotating host churches that transform their buildings into homes for the participants for a week at a time. When the church hosted the families last week, the building looked like anything but a shelter. Volunteers and participants roamed the building playing games with the kids, working with the parents on their goals and making dinner for the group.

The home-like environment is part of the plan for the Family Promise, which attempts to provide families with stability as they work on their goal of permanent housing.

But finding permanent housing can be a frustrating and complicated task for participants who are dealing with a variety of issues and who have faced many setbacks.

Program participant Carla Starnes, 30, has been homeless for two years and says she’s bounced around four shelters in several area counties. Starnes is at the program with her 1-year-old son, R’sean, and she said that until she entered the Family Promise program, she had nearly given up on getting her life back on track.

“I felt like there was no hope,” Starnes said.

That’s changed in her one month with the program, she said.

“There’s a lot of people behind me,” Starnes said. “I never knew people could be so nice.”

Mora-Benimon has also faced her share of setbacks while in the program. She’s been denied housing three times, and had many of what she calls “give up” moments. But the support from the program and others in the Lawrence community have kept her going.

When she needed extensive dental work, Lawrence dentist Marvin Heinbach donated thousands of dollars in dental care. When she didn’t have money for Christmas presents for her daughter, volunteers bought presents for her and her daughter. When she needed a car to get to work, one of the churches gave her a truck.

The benefits of the Family Promise have gone both ways for the roughly 1,000 volunteers who have helped out with the program, said Peter Luckey, the senior pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church, one of the host churches for the program.

Works both ways

A positive byproduct of the program has been bringing the volunteers closer to social issues that may not affect them personally, he said.

“We live segregated lives,” said Luckey of the divide between the homeless and the Lawrence community. But the program has helped volunteers understand that homelessness happens to people not that different from them, he said.

“(The program) really puts a human face on it,” said Miller-Coleman, adding that real and lasting friendships develop between the participants and the volunteers.

In addition to finding housing, Mora-Benimon has been making progress in her other goals. She is scheduled to graduate next spring from Haskell with a degree in business administration, and she secured a paid internship this summer through the university. She said it’s all been made possible through the new network of friends and support she’s developed in the program.

“I’ve never met so many people who give,” she said.