D.C. Congregations Called Upon to Serve Homeless Community
One of Kamisha Nelson’s greatest wishes has finally come true: she now has a home. This previously homeless 24-year-old woman, along with her two young children, was placed in an apartment about four weeks ago.
“I’m very grateful,” she said as she brushed away tears.
She explained that she recently received her high school diploma and hoped to continue her education and eventually become a business manager.
Nelson is one of the first participants in DC’s One Congregation One Family (OCOF) program.
“I know this program will help me,” she continued. “I don’t know what else to say. I’m blessed for all the people who have come into my life.”
When Nelson sat down after speaking at OCOF’s launch at the New Bethel Baptist Church in the District’s Shaw neighborhood, the audience stood in applause. Many members of DC’s religious communities were represented in the audience, hoping to learn how their congregations could help a family like the Nelsons.
OCOF is a new DC initiative that aims at pairing religious congregations of all denominations with homeless families. It aims to stabilize the families and prevent what DC Mayor Vincent C. Gray recently described as the “unprecedented demand for emergency family housing” this past winter.
During the past winter, the District’s homeless services system was overwhelmed by needy parents and children. More than 700 families were sheltered at the peak of the cold weather season, surpassing city officials’ estimates by over 200. After the 285 rooms at the city’s family shelter located in the former DC General Hospital were filled, human services officials began placing additional homeless families at inexpensive motels and recreation centers.
As part of an effort to stop such a crisis from recurring, Gray officially launched the OCOF program during his weekly press conference on June 18.
“We call on each house of worship—every church, every mosque, every synagogue—to take one family, just one,” Gray said.
OCOF pairs a mentor team from a faith-based congregation with a homeless family or a family on the verge of homelessness. The mentor team works closely with the homeless family, acting as a sort of extended family for them. The hope is that different members of the mentor team can offer different areas of expertise for the family they are paired with. For instance, the team may include people who are knowledgeable about job searches, financial management, child education, and parenting skills.
Families that could benefit most from the program are those that are headed by young parents, just 18 to 24 years old, said Gray. An estimated 40 percent of homeless families at DC General fit that description, according to the city Department of Human Services. Often, these young adults have little experience living independently and no experience raising children. The mentor teams would provide support and advice that could be particularly helpful for these young parents, according to the mayor.
Gray emphasized that OCOF is completely voluntary – both for the participating congregations and the homeless families – and that it comes at no financial cost to the congregations. Although mentor teams come from religious congregations, Gray said OCOF should not be seen as an opportunity for religious groups to try to convert participating families.
There is much more to faith than conversions in any case, observed New Bethel’s pastor Dexter Nutall, who serves as the mayor’s director of religious affairs.
“Unless faith shows up in day-to-day life, faith is irrelevant,” he said. “[Participating in OCOF] can give meaning and relevance to what we say we believe.”
“None of us get to where we’ve gotten by ourselves,” said Nutall. “We live in a country of communities.”