Denver's Family And Senior Homeless Initiative: Tackling Homelessness Through Mentoring
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When most Denverites think of homelessness, the first image that comes to mind is often that of a haggard, weather-beaten man on the Cherry Creek Trail.
The truth of the matter is that--while the problem of homelessness in Denver is certainly multi-faceted--roughly half of the city's homeless population is comprised of families.
That's why then-Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper called for the creation of the Family and Senior Homeless Initiative (FSHI) in 2005. The program, which is run through the Denver Rescue Mission, calls on 1,000 religious congregations to embrace 1,000 homeless families through financial support and mentoring.
Brad Hopkins, the program's director, told the Huffington Post that many of the families receiving assistance from FSHI are unemployed, or have been beset by an injury, illness, or some other misfortune from which they are struggling to recover financially.
"The economy right now plays a huge part," he says.
Consistent with Denver's housing-first ideal, which emphasizes access to shelter as the most important first step for homeless individuals and families, the program calls for sponsoring congregations to donate $1200 to pay for a family's first-month rent.
But the program is about far more than just providing immediate shelter for families. Sponsors form mentoring groups of 2-6 individuals to meet with each family to discuss financial management and goal-setting.
"[Many homeless families] just don't really have time to form those supportive relationships and the support structure is often not what it needs to be." Hopkins explains. Mentor groups exist to provide the "unconditional support" families need to achieve financial stability.
"It's a lot of work. More than I expected," says mentor Mark Silverstein, a principal with Delloite Consulting. Silverstein says it's exactly that work that makes the mentoring experience worthwhile.
"It's so much easier to write a check [to a charity], but you don't get nearly as much out of it," he says.
Statistics suggest that the efforts of mentors like Silverstein are paying off. The organization says that 85 percent of families that work with FSHI mentors are still in housing one year after beginning their sessions.
As of February 28, 2011, 310 congregations had been paired with 840 families throughout Denver. FSHI has also moved beyond its initial model of relying soleley on religious organization. Hopkins says that realtors, businessmen and even a brewery had pooled resources to sponsor families.
Despite FSHI's early successes, the program is still looking for more mentors. Getting involved is as simple as gathering a group of 2-6 mentors from your organization, and calling 303.313.2440.
"The impact mentors have is just amazing," Hopkins told the Huffington Post. "Especially when you think of the children and the impact that homelessness have on them."