It’s been an arduous journey for the Linnear family, from their life in West Chicago to the nights they’ve spent in local churches and with friends in the Midwest.
Single father Isiah Linnear, 41, brought his five children to Lawrence a year ago, hoping to escape an urban environment he described as inadequate for raising children.
“It was actually on Thanksgiving night last year when we were still in Chicago that I had made the decision that made us homeless,” Linnear said. “I had already thought about (moving) for a while but wanted to do it the right way.”
An altercation with a family member that night forced Linnear to make a rash decision that put his family on the streets. The day after Thanksgiving, he pulled his kids from school, packed a U-Haul trailer and left Chicago.
Instead of a promising new start, the Linnear family found themselves on a path that would irrevocably change their lives.
“There were really some emotional times,” Linnear said of the past year. “But I just knew that I had to leave that night.”
Today, the family has a modest home on Ohio Street and is celebrating Thanksgiving together, thanks to the Lawrence Family Promise, a local organization that works with local churches and volunteers to help homeless families secure permanent housing.
“I’m just thankful that I had the courage to make the decision I made, even though it put us in a homeless situation,” Linnear said. “In hindsight, I don’t think we would be together today if I hadn’t.”
After recently celebrating the organization’s four-year anniversary, director Dana Ortiz said Lawrence Family Promise has come a long way from when it opened its doors. Ortiz said founding members were initially unsure about the kind of participation they would get.
“Which is laughable now,” she said. “We could serve twice as many families.”
Promises to keep
Lawrence Family Promise served 18 families, with 68 adults and 41 children, in 2011, who had an average stay of a little more than two months. Eleven of those 18 families graduated and are now in permanent housing, according to Lawrence Family Promise’s 2011 annual report.
More than 1,000 local volunteers and about 35 area congregations work with Lawrence Family Promise, which is affiliated with the national organization bearing the same name that has 174 affiliates in 41 states. The local organization partners with congregations to provide temporary shelter and food, housing up to four families at a time.
In Douglas County in 2011, 226 people were identified as being homeless, 69 of those children, according to the Douglas County Homeless Survey. That represents more than a doubling of the country’s homeless population from 104 in 2009.
Referrals for potential families for the program come from local social agencies and shelters, school administrators, or family and friends. Ortiz said she typically receives six to 10 calls a day about families interested in Family Promise, which is unable to meet the rising need.
“We’re usually full, and I have to tell them to keep calling,” Ortiz said. “No one chooses to be homeless, and these people are heroes, the moms and dads who are able to swallow their pride and ask for help and come into a program where people know they are homeless. I stand in awe.”
It costs about $8,000 to $10,000 to send a family through the program, which includes outreach services to help family members find employment and learn how to budget income. Community members have helped the program with two donated transitional houses and a day center with laundry facilities, a computer lab, homework room, teen room, children’s library and nursery, kitchen, bathrooms and shower facilities, as well as individual storage space. Through contributions, grants and fundraising events, Family Promise raised $201,385 in 2011.
“Some well-meaning programs enable, and this program is all about helping people in crisis and tough times,” Ortiz said. “It’s about helping them learn and relearn.”
Founding member Joe Reitz said the program continually fulfills his original vision to provide a service to homeless families and children while providing face-to-face interaction with those in the community.
“A lot of families and kids, both in the program and not, are much better off now than they would be if we weren’t here,” he said. “We’ve been as effective and efficient as I thought we would be.”
Many graduates of the program, like Joe Williams, give back to Family Promise through volunteering. Williams was disabled and taking care of his 7-year-old granddaughter, whom he had adopted, when he asked for help.
“The program is a great big help,” he said. “The program gave me so much and opened me up… it’s nice to give back.”
With plans to visit friends in Kansas City for the holiday, Linnear said that considering where he was at a year ago, he is definitely counting his blessings this year.
“I’m really thankful this Thanksgiving for Family Promise and for all of the entities that work with them,” he said. “And for me being a spiritual man, I’m thankful for God carrying us through all of these tough times to get me to where I am today.”
The Linnears stayed with friends for months before finally joining the program in March. They graduated in September when they moved into their home.
“It took me about three months to become humble enough to get involved in a program that would benefit my family,” Linnear said. “Being homeless in itself, it’s kind of a tough title to wear.”
Linnear’s hesitations stemmed from his concerns for how the family’s involvement with such a program would reflect on his five school-aged children: Isiah, 15, Lezley, 14, Britney, 11, Joshua, 9, and especially 17-year-old Free State High junior Kourtney.
“I didn’t want people to think that about me,” Kourtney Linnear said. “When I first went to a church, I didn’t know that students were going to be there and everything just fell out…but they (other students) just support you in the program so you don’t feel like you are so lonely, and now they congratulate me every day.”
For Linnear, the dedication and compassion of the volunteers he has met throughout his time in the program have given him a new perspective on his life and himself.
“I’m totally different as far as how I view life and in respect to people,” he said. “The saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ well, me as a man and not being so prideful allowed the community to help me and raise my children.”