New program brings 'promise' to Portland families

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PORTLAND — A new city program is looking to use existing services to help homeless children and families.

“It is an amazing experience to see all the pieces come together from across a diverse section of the community,” Greater Portland Family Promise Executive Director Sara Ewing-Merrill said Monday. “This tries to cross interfaith boundaries and socioeconomic ones to create new relationships.”

The Portland affiliate is the 207th for Family Promise, established nationally 30 years ago. 

“The philosophy is to use existing community resources and repurpose as needed,” Ewing-Merrill said.

Ewing-Merrill, shares the role of lead pastor at HopeGateWay  United Methodist Church with her husband, Allen Ewing-Merrill. In early 2016, distressed by overcrowding reported at the city’s homeless shelter for families, she wanted to help.

“I felt compelled to do something, but was not sure what,” she said. Allen Ewing-Merrill attended a city meeting, and both remembered the existence of Interfaith Hospitality Network, which is now known as Family Promise.

The program requires a wider commitment than the couple alone could make, and Sara Ewing-Merrill said it took 18 months to recruit 26 local congregations to become part of the city affiliation.

Working with a $150,000 annual budget and relying heavily on donated money, goods and time, Greater Portland Family Promise is set up to help as many as four families at a time with stable housing and the panoply of services available to create a stable life.

“It is really a program for children,” Ewing-Merrill said in her office at the Portland YMCA on Forest Avenue. The YMCA also provides a day room with laundry and kitchen facilities so families can meet with case workers. Lodging comes at area churches, where they take weekly turns.

Ewing-Merrill said about 200 volunteers have been trained; she wants five times as many to be ready to pitch in.

“That could even mean coming in and eating dinner with a family, or helping with homework, or maybe spending the night,” she said.

Greater Portland Family Promise also provides van transportation for families from lodging to the day center.

Congregations involved include the Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church, Woodfords Congregational Church, Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland and Saint Anthony’s of Padua Catholic Church in Westbrook.

The first family assisted in the program is a Congolese couple with two children who joined July 9. Ewing-Merrill said program referrals will come from staff at the city’s homeless shelter.

“It is not emergency shelter, it is a program,” she said. “The goal is not to get them housed as quickly as possible; it is to get them equipped to be housed sustainably,” she said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

The Rev. Sara Ewing-Merrill said July 17 the new Greater Portland Family Promise program goal is to help homeless families become “equipped to be housed sustainably.”

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.