Helping Homeless Families Through a Pandemic: How Family Promise Adjusted Their Program’s Congregational Model Due to COVID-19

Family Promise of Orange County is a nonprofit organization that helps families experiencing homelessness achieve housing stability.  We primarily operate an Emergency Shelter Program that relies on local congregations in our community to house and support the families in our program, and this model was severely challenged by the pandemic when all houses of worship shut down in mid-March.

Edgar, Elizabeth and their young son. 

In January 2020, Edgar and Elizabeth were struggling to make ends meet and found themselves without a place to live for themselves, their two-year-old son, and their baby on the way.  They were put in touch with us at Family Promise of Orange County, where they were accepted into our Emergency Shelter Program. Their first night in the program, they stayed at Church of the Foothills, a CC(DOC) congregation, which is one of 14 local churches that participate as hosts for the families in our program.  They stayed at Church of the Foothills for one week, where church volunteers provided them with warm meals and warm hospitality. After a week, the family moved on to the next host church in the rotation, staying at each congregation for one week at a time. This congregational rotation is the foundation of our Emergency Shelter model. We believe that the solution to homelessness is rooted in a community-based response.  For the first time in a while, Edgar and Elizabeth were finally able to have a warm bed and a roof over their heads each night. Because of the generosity of our volunteer congregations, Edgar and Elizabeth were able to get back on their feet and were able to graduate our program and move into their own apartment in just 34 days!

However, when COVID-19 shut everything down in March, families like Edgar and Elizabeth who had successfully graduated our program quickly found themselves suddenly without employment and were once again being threatened with the reality of not being able to pay their rent. Our 14 host congregations, who would normally house new families in our program and provide them with comfort and support, had to shut their doors because of the pandemic. Our Emergency Shelter Program that had once helped families like Edgar and Elizabeth overcome homelessness was no longer able to operate regularly.

Because our shelter model was so severely impacted, we had to pivot our program in a matter of days from supporting families through the congregational model to supporting them directly with funds to cover rent payments, car payments, providing groceries and gas, cleaning supplies, toiletries, diapers, and paper goods—anything to supplement their lost income. We began to not only support the families in our Emergency Shelter Program, but also several of our graduate families who were now at risk of falling back into homelessness.  Eighty-seven percent of our families had become unemployed because of the pandemic. The funds from the COVID-19 NBA Response Grant were used immediately to provide this assistance to supplement the incomes of our families in the best ways possible to keep them safely housed. The homeless community has been so drastically affected by the pandemic—how does one shelter in place safely when they have no shelter?  We have seen a dramatic increase in people needing help during this time. Everyone is hurting.  Under normal program operations, we usually support 8-10 families in the program at one time.  Over the last three months alone, we have supported 23 families, totaling 88 people.

Family Promise of Orange County Volunteers Family Promise of Orange County Volunteers

Family Promise volunteers gather groceries and other supplies for their community.

Despite the many difficulties our program has faced, we have been so blessed to have the amazing support of the faith-based community. Our host and support congregations have been so generous in making sure our program and our families not only survive, but thrive, during this difficult time. Donors, volunteers, and friends have come together, and we truly see Christ’s spirit in the kindness we are shown as we navigate the unique challenges this pandemic has presented. We look forward to our host congregations, including the two DOC churches in our rotation, reopening their doors and once again being able to welcome our families into their care. Until then, we hold steadfast in our commitment to helping the families in our program in any way we can.

For more information about our organization, and to find out how you can help our families during the pandemic, please visit our website

Malia Cary is the Community Impact Manager at Family Promise of Orange County, where she works closely with the host and support congregations involved in the program.  She also serves as the volunteer program coordinator for Family Promise at her CC(DOC) congregation, Church of the Foothills, in Santa Ana, California.

As the health and social services general ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the National Benevolent Association partners with congregations, regions, general ministries, and a variety of Disciples-related health and social service providers to create communities of compassion and care. Founded in 1887 by six women responding to the needs of the day and on their doorsteps, for more than 130 years the NBA has continued to serve “the least of these.” Learn more at