Flipping the idea of a homeless shelter on its head

September 26, 2023

Renting apartments to be used as homeless shelters! Introducing Family Promise’s cost effective and compassionate Apartment Shelter Program.

In 2015, ZPC agreed to use its facility to host four unhoused families with children for a week at a time in its Sunday school rooms. Several ZPCers spent hours coordinating volunteers to set up rollaway beds, make meals, provide transportation, and sleep overnight. This shelter program was called the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Family Promise, and it had been in operation for 27 years, helping more than 1,500 families secure permanent housing. ZPC hosted more than 24 weeks and almost 100 families!

But in March 2020, with fear of COVID-19, the congregation-based program was suspended. Family Promise secured hotel rooms for all families, and searched for a new model. From that public health nightmare, a new model was born.

In June 2020, Family Promise of Greater Indianapolis rented 10 apartments. Congregations, corporations, and Mustard Seed of Central Indiana provided furniture. Today, thanks to the annual #NightWithoutABed fundraiser and generous support from Glick Philanthropies, the program operates 20 apartments around Indianapolis. Each apartment is used as a temporary homeless shelter for a family with children. Parents can cook their own food, can get their own toilet paper out of the closet, and do not fear theft or violence. A mom or dad can even take the overtime offered while their 16-year old watches their 10-year old for a couple hours after school--something not allowed in almost any traditional shelter.

The family works with a case manager to secure permanent housing as soon as possible (generally 30 to 90 days). The case manager also provides referrals, transportation and services like mental health evaluation and treatment, physicals and immunizations, childcare and school enrollment, and employment search. If the guest family wants to stay in the apartment and take over the lease, that's ideal. They keep the furnishings. If they find a new place, Family Promise provides them with a Mustard Seed referral for furniture, Goodwill vouchers for housewares, and more. The now vacant apartment and its furnishings become a shelter for the next family that calls.

Isn't that expensive compared to a traditional shelter? 

The total annual operating cost for renting and furnishing 10 apartments (plus all the other operational/overhead/fundraising costs) for a year was compared to the budgets of local family shelters. The Apartment Shelter Program was 30% lower than the expenses for a traditional shelter. Though the property costs of renting apartments is high, the personnel savings more than make up for it. There is no evening shift, night shift, or professional cook needed.

What about drugs, alcohol, damages, or loss of urgency risks that increase when a family lives independent?

The Apartment Shelter Program staff provide accountability and encouragement to help families be successful. They conduct random drug testing, weekly property condition walk-throughs, and set weekly goals. Financial incentives (first month's rent, security deposit) are built into the program to encourage compliance with the guidelines. 

Why rent on the private market?

Why not do a capital campaign for a small apartment building to cut property costs? Every effort needs to be made to reduce the transitions for the family, as they are disruptive to school attendance, employment retention, health appointments, and more. By renting on the private market, there is a chance the family can take over the lease. If they do, you have then successfully eliminated their "shelter" stay, and replaced it with simply a move to a furnished apartment, while still supporting the parent(s) and children along the way and for two more years with Family Promise's home-based AfterCare program.

Check out Family Promise's silent auction that is part of their October 5 event, Home Sweet Home. Look for more ways to support these efforts this year and in the future, and learn more at fpgi.org/asp

Because every child deserves a home.