Rachel Cain

The eight representatives from DC faith communities are engaged in a fierce debate over whether or not to buy an expensive pair of NIKE shoes. On the one hand, the shoes are pricey and members of the group are down to their last couple hundred dollars. They need to save money for necessities, such as groceries and transportation. Yet, on the other hand, kids often face intense teasing at their schools for not having the “in” shoes. After several minutes while representatives passionately explain their opinions, the group decides against the NIKEs—they need the cash, and the child will have to deal with the teasing at school.

The representatives are playing “Spent,” an online game designed to give the players a glimpse of what living in 30 days of poverty is like. They are participating in the Faith Team Mentor Training for the One Congregation. One Family (OCOF) program, an initiative developed by Mayor Gray and the Mayor’s Interfaith Council to pair mentor teams from DC faith communities with families in rapid re-housing.
“I ask each house of worship in the District—every church, synagogue, and mosque—to take on one family and provide emotional, social, and spiritual support to help them succeed in getting on their feet,” Gray said when he introduced the program during his State of the District Address in March.

“We [the DC government] will help get them housed and help them qualify for key basic benefits. But we know they need loving and caring support as they tackle the tough challenges of becoming and remaining independent.”

Gray, a practicing Catholic, had the inspiration for involving the faith community with homeless families while he was sitting in church. David Berns who retired in June as the District’s human services director, had previously worked in Colorado and told the mayor of a successful effort in that state that paired congregations with needy families. In May, a delegation from DC visited Denver to learn more about Colorado’s program.

In 2006, Denver began connecting homeless families with mentor teams from religious congregations. The program has now expanded throughout the entire state of Colorado and also involves secular organizations, such as the governor’s office and the Salvation Army. DC officials hope DC may do the same in the future.

“You can talk to a family all you want and try to help them,” said Sandrock, who is also the head of the mentor team from the governor’s office. “But so long as they’re living out of a car, talking about a résumé won’t help.”

Congregations involved in D.C.’s OCOF initiative create mentor teams of about five or six people to provide emotional support for the family in rapid re-housing and help them manage their goals.
Rapid re-housing is a program to get families out of shelters quickly and into short-term housing with rental assistance.

Although families may be paired with a congregation of a faith they choose, congregations and the mentor teams are solely there for support, not to convince the family members to attend services.
The families and mentor teams are required to meet twice a month over six months, but are encouraged to meet more frequently and to keep in touch after the six months are over.

Since OCOF’s official launch on June 18, three homeless families have signed up to be paired with a mentor team and at least two congregations are preparing to be matched with families.

Sonya Crudup, Program Coordinator of OCOF, said in an email that 20 congregations have already expressed interest in forming mentor teams.

“We receive daily inquiries regarding the program, we’ve met with several congregations individually and have additional meetings set up over the next few weeks,” Crudup said. “We’ve gotten a very positive response since the launch of the program.”

According to Crudup, about 200 DC families are currently in rapid re-housing.

“I hope we can get all two hundred [families involved],” Crudup said, although OCOF is completely voluntary to both families and congregations.

She also said that, in the future, the program could extend to other housing programs beyond rapid rehousing.

Councilmember Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) says she will spread the word about OCOF throughout her ward, and she hopes her fellow councilmembers will do the same.

“It takes everyone in the community to help [end homelessness],” Alexander said.

Congregations interested in becoming involved in OCOF must send a representative to the four-hour Faith Mentor Team Training. During the training, participants receive an overview of the program as well as an introduction to the realities of life in poverty.

The participants learn about the “hidden rules” of poverty using study materials developed by educator Ruby K. Payne, author of the bestseller “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” and an expert on the mindsets of economic classes. Payne describes the “hidden rules” as the unspoken cues and habits held in common among members of a social class.

For instance, those who live in poverty are more likely to tolerate higher noise levels because they often live in close quarters. They place greater importance on non-verbal cues when deciding whom to like and trust. They respect personal strength because see that as a key to survival. People who live in affluence value social exclusion because they see their own connections as an important way of maintaining their status. They respect expertise because while they belong to a class where having money is a given, proficiency is an aquired trait. They expect perfection.

The group also discussed family structure as it relates to poverty: a poor woman may depend upon a succession of partners in an effort to survive economically but this causes stress to her and her children.

Workshop participants from faith organizations filled out questionnaires designed to determine whether they could survive as members of different classes. Living in poverty involves skills such as knowing how to access the local food bank, how to function without a checking account, how to physically fight, how to feed eight people for five days on $100 and how to get by without electricity or a phone. By contrast, people who function in the middle class are expected to be able to contact teachers when their children are having problems in school; know how to use credit cards and maintain bank accounts and how to decorate their homes for the holidays. Functioning in the upper class are expected to be able to patronize the arts, serve on charity boards and converse easily about fine foods, wines and travel, workshop participants learned.

So far, two training sessions have been held and more are being planned. Supporters hope that the winner of November’s mayoral race will embrace OCOF.

“With the new mayor, we want to make this program so successful, they want to keep it going,” Crudup said.

Alexander said she does not see a reason for a new mayor to discontinue the program.

“Definitely any mayor who takes office will have to deal with the problem of homelessness,” Alexander said. “I would encourage them to continue [One Congregation One Family].”