In the past two years, the nonprofit Family Promise, located in a small storefront in the Rio Grande section of Middle Township, has helped 17 families cope with the stress and trauma of homelessness in a county without a homeless shelter.

"Seventy-five percent have moved on to safe housing," said Network Director Laurie Johnson, who said the families who have come through have included 45 children. "I

wouldn't necessarily say affordable (housing) - that's nonexistent."

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Now the group, made up of 15 religious congregations which act as overnight hosts for drug-free homeless families in Cape May County - housing them in weekly shifts - and 19 support congregations which provide meals and other services, is looking to expand into transitional housing.

"It would be a next step to independence. The families would come in through our main (three-month) program for the support and to feel part of a community again, then from there move into a (transitional) apartment where they could continue to save money and work on budgeting and credit restoration, parenting classes and life-skill classes," Johnson said.

Families would stay in Family Promise's transitional apartments for about nine additional months, she said. That would give them time to work on issues that might have caused the homelessness, she said, adding the state has approved the group for funding if it can find an appropriate building with about eight apartments.

Meanwhile, the non-profit group, an affiliate of the 23-year-old national Interfaith Hospitality Network, is celebrating its second anniversary. It continues to provide its basic services, which include access to a 1,300-square-foot day center in the Village Shoppes at Rio Grande, where families have a safe place to be with young children (school-age children are bused to school from the day center); search for jobs; eat meals and take showers.

FPCMC can count on help from about 700 volunteers over the course of a year, most of whom are members of participating religious congregations. But some, such as Dianne Scarlett of Lower Township, are independent volunteers who come to help regularly.

"I come to the day center. Every day is something different. It could be answering phones, folding flyers, stuffing envelopes, sitting and reading to little ones, or feeding babies lunch," said Scarlett, 47, a former teacher in Lower Township schools and in Wildwood High School, who has also worked in the corporate world.

One day last week she transported a bureau from her own home to the center, to be given to a family that just got a new apartment, and had a new baby, she said.

"It's so bittersweet to let go and wish them well. We're so happy and proud of all the work they've done. It takes a village (to raise a child), and we are a village," Scarlett said.

Avoiding motel stays

One of the group's main goals is to prevent drug-free families with children from spending time in isolated and often sub-standard housing like motels used to house the homeless in Cape May County.

It can cost taxpayers $75 to $105 per night to house a homeless family of four in a budget motel, the lower figure representing the cost of a single room, and the higher figure the cost of two rooms, said Donna Groome, assistant administrative supervisor for Cape May County Social Services. (Emergency housing programs in the county are mainly funded by the state and federal governments, but administered by the county.)

Pat Devaney, director of Cape May County's Department of Human Services, said a January 2011 survey found 166 individuals and 86 households (made up of 246 persons, for a total of 412 people) living in emergency housing in the county. That was up from 160 individuals and 54 families in such housing a year before (made up of 177 individuals, for a total of 337 the year before), she said.

Family Promise also wants to prevent families from being sent to shelters in other counties, where male and female family members are separated and school lives disrupted.

In addition to providing shelter, Family Promise helps the families find a permanent home, job training and placement services, and basic social services. The other paid staff member is Kathleen O'Neill, the family advocate who acts as caseworker and helps families plan for the future.

Transportation is an issue in Cape May County, Johnson said, since public transportation is limited. So the group asks for donations of cars in working order, which go directly to a needy family. So far, five cars have been donated to the program.

Vehicles must be in good shape, or they just become burdens to an already stressed family, she said. "It's a win/win. The donor gets a tax write off."

This summer the Crest Community Church in Wildwood Crest will become the 16th congregation to join as hosts, and will perform their first hosting duties in July, Johnson said.

Lisa DeShields, of N. Cape May, is a member of host congregation Tabernacle United Methodist Church in Erma. She has helped with everything from feeding guest families, to staying with them overnight.

The preschool teacher especially enjoys seeing the program's effects on children.

"Kids come in bitter, and go out joyful. They see there are good people they can trust in the world," she said.

Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:

609-272-7219

Michelle.Post@pressofac.com

If you want to help

Family Promise of Cape May County always welcomes new volunteers. There is an informational meeting 6:30 p.m. the third Monday of every month at the day center, 1304 Route 47 South, Unit RU in the Village Shoppes of Rio Grande. Call 609-846-7862 or 609-350-4875 or visit http://www.familypromisecapemaycounty.org/" target= "_blank">www.familypromisecapemaycounty.org.

Family Promise of Southern Ocean County can be reached at 609-994-3317.

Family Promise of Cumberland County is seeking to start a program, and looking for an appropriate day center location. Call 856-691-4278 for more information.

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