When Temple Chai Executive Director Joe Miller first heard of the proposal to turn the synagogue into a part-time homeless shelter, he was more than a little skeptical.
“We had a big meeting, and I sat there with a scowl on my face because I knew what we were going to be meeting about and I was all ‘no way,’” Miller said.
The partnership with Family Promise of Greater Phoenix (FPGP) initially drew a muted response from Temple Chai leadership as well. Rabbi Mari Chernow confessed in her High Holiday sermon last year to feeling “lukewarm on the idea” — at first.
But the idea had its champions in now-former Temple Chai members Steve and Illiana Sanders, who’d visited Family Promise for a community service activity through Temple Chai and were so impressed they began advocating for the temple to sign up as a host, Miller said.
The couple persuaded Temple Chai leadership to visit a church that was hosting homeless families. When the families started introducing themselves and shaking hands, Miller began to see the program in a different light.
And in her High Holiday sermon last year, Chernow talked about why her initial reaction to the FPGP partnership had changed.
“Their goal, which is now our goal, is to give families a hands-up and assist them in their return to self-sufficiency,” she said. “And we do that by bringing them here, to our courtyard and our social halls and our kitchen and our beautiful sanctuary.”
Fast forward one year, and Temple Chai could not be more enthusiastic about the FPGP partnership. The synagogue hosted its first FPGP family in December 2016, and have hosted three more times since. They’ll host again in December.
Though it serves homeless families, FPGP is not a traditional site-based shelter, explained Ted Taylor, the organization’s director. Instead of running a facility with a large kitchen and numerous beds, FPGP is a day shelter that focuses on helping families get sustainable housing and employment as quickly as possible.
“The way we operate is by congregations of all different faiths hosting our families, normally four families at a time, for one week in a row,” Taylor said. “It starts on a Sunday evening and goes seven days straight. They provide the evening meal and also the overnight lodging at their facility.”
The hosting congregations also provide breakfast and lunch.
When the Sanders couple moved to Denver in May, Kelly Golner and her husband stepped in to fill the void as advocates of the partnership with Family Promise.
“It’s caught on and everybody who does it just loves it and gets so much out of it,” Golner said. “The families are so sweet and appreciative. It’s been great; really a collaborative effort.”
Taylor noted that Temple Chai’s food was particularly popular among the families.
“They have some of the best cooks,” Taylor said. “Usually, Temple Chai prepares so much that the families end up taking huge portions back to the day center with them.”
But the meals are about more than just food. Each night, volunteers sit and eat with the families.
“We meet, we eat. We make sure it’s a hot meal,” Miller said. “We all tell our volunteers that these our guests, there’s no judgment.”
In August, one of the children staying at Temple Chai celebrated her seventh birthday. Golner said they spoke with the volunteer providing dinner that night and arranged for a cake.
Volunteers also plan nightly children’s activities, anything from arts and crafts to obstacle courses to playground time, plus a Saturday movie night, Golner said.
“The volunteers that have done it all want to come back and do it again,” Golner said. “I already have most of the meals and children’s activities filled for December’s hosting because once they’ve done it, they’re like, ‘This is amazing. I have to do it again.’”
For his part, Taylor said Temple Chai’s reaction to the program has been incredible.
“The passion of this congregation is just stunning,” said Taylor. “We’ve just had a really super experience with Temple Chai, and quite frankly, it is very rare to see a senior pastor, in this case a rabbi, but [Chernow] shows up virtually every week.”
Started in 1986 in New Jersey, Family Promise came to Phoenix in 2000.
Today, FPGP primarily targets first-time homeless families. More than 70 percent of families return to sustainable housing within 43 days of entry into the program, Taylor said.
“Our primary job is getting them to work again,” he said. “We’re very quick; our average family is employed again within 28 days.
“Our second goal is to get them sustainable housing. We begin on housing work the first week. We get them on waiting lists for supported housing, for other more creative housing.
“We get our clients stabilized for employment, get them housing, then we teach them how to manage cash.”
Along with assisting families with obtaining social services, FPGP volunteers transport children to school, work with the parents during the day and then transport the families back to the host organizations at night.
Since FPGP began, they’ve helped more than 1,000 families (3,500 individuals, 2,200 of them children), according to Taylor.
With more interfaith organizations taking in homeless families, FPGP has managed to increase the number of people it helps without having to spend money on expanding its own facilities.
“If I’m just straight with you, it’s the miracle of places like Temple Chai and congregations across this Valley that make us possible,” Taylor said. JN