The “Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Buffalo”, doing business as “Family Promise of WNY” (FPWNY), is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit emergency shelter for homeless families in our community. FPWNY began as the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Buffalo in 1994. It was a new affiliate in a national hospitality organization with a mission of uniting faith communities in responding to the needs of families experiencing homelessness as they work to find stability and independence.
The organization was founded a decade earlier by a woman named Karen Olson who was rushing to a business meeting in New Jersey when she passed a homeless woman on the street. On impulse, Karen bought her a sandwich. The woman, Millie, accepted the sandwich but told Karen also about the profound feelings of diminished self-worth and disconnection that people experiencing homelessness feel. Karen felt she could do more for homeless families in her community and approached religious communities about offering meals and hospitality shelter space within their buildings overnight in collaboration with a Day Center that would help with case management during business hours. The first Interfaith Hospitality Network opened in 1986. The organization later changed its name nationally to Family Promise and was awarded one of 21 Points of Light by President and Barbara Bush in 1992. Today, there are over 200 Family Promise affiliates nationwide.
Regionally, the organization came to Western New York when the Reverend Daniel Weir, then Director of the Erie County Commission on Homelessness, arranged for various clergy from Erie County to meet with the national Interfaith Hospitality Network in 1993. Interested clergy and congregational members worked diligently throughout the next several years to found the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Buffalo (IHNGB). A Board of Trustees was formed and IHNGB was incorporated in December of 1994. The following eleven founding congregations committed to becoming founding host sites:
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Buffalo agreed to rent space on its church property for the IHNGB’s day center, known as the “Hospitality House”. With the first monies received in 1996 from host congregations, Episcopal Community Services, the Presbytery of Western New York and the Campaign of Human Development of the Roman Catholic Diocese of WNY, a full-time Executive Director was hired and the beds that would be transported between the various host congregations were purchased. The Ford Dealers of WNY and Northern PA donated a 15-passenager “Ford Friendship” van to IHNGB. And in July of 1996 IHNGB accepted its first family.
The Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Buffalo began doing business as Family Promise of Western New York in 2008. Over its twenty-five year history, FPWNY’s community-based model has always been what has distinguished it. FPWNY operates by mobilizing existing resources in our community to form a hospitality network which supports the immediate needs of our guests. Because of the value of hospitality found in every religious tradition, our primary partners have always been faith communities. In 2018 our hospitality network included over 50 faith communities who supported our program through hospitality, cooking meals, donating goods and offering financial contributions. In total, over $336,000 was poured into our program in in-kind goods and labor – which is twice our operating budget!
Currently, FPWNY is undertaking its most ambitious shift yet – from housing families overnight in religious communities to housing them permanently in a static site shelter. This change has been prompted by a radical new understanding of trauma in our Western New York community and what best practices for dealing with guests who are currently experiencing a crisis look like. In the Spring of 2018 FPWNY undertook a program review led by Dr. Diane Bessel, Director of the School of Social Work at Daemen College, and the recommendations were clear. Trauma-informed care underscores the need for stability in the lives of our guests in order to ensure physical and emotional safety. FPWNY is currently engaging with funders to help support renovations to our Day Center which will allow us to be able to keep families overnight here and bring our volunteer hospitality network in-house for support.
What makes Family Promise of WNY unique in this community are the following:
We deliver on our mission. In 2018 we welcomed 20 families into our program and logged a total of 4,180 bed nights for 85 people, 70% of whom were children. These families came to us as a result of eviction, job loss and other crises that are so difficult to navigate when you are living below the poverty line. Of those families in our program who remained eligible for our services, we were able to successfully transition 88% of them out of homelessness.