Meet Cristal

Affordable housing is in short supply across the country, and one Family Promise volunteer group in Hoboken, NJ, is learning firsthand the true value of having a home.

The Young Adult Group at Saint Ann Catholic Church is piloting a program they call “Home Is Where the Heart Is” and is working with Family Promise Union County (FPUC) in Elizabeth, NJ, to help families battling homelessness find housing. The initiative, directed by the group’s co-leader Cristal Bello, is researching and identifying appropriate available units to help FPUC families get into affordable housing as quickly as possible. Working within specific parameters that define apartment size, maximum rent, and location, the group maintains a real-time spreadsheet that contains all the necessary information about affordable housing currently on the market so FPUC and families can follow up.

Bello says the experience has been eye opening.

“It’s a challenge to find these listings because there’s such a shortage [of affordable housing],” she says. “It’s hard enough for a person with financial means in this area to find an apartment on their own, there’s just a lack of housing in general. But then, to find housing for people who fall below the poverty line? It’s almost impossible!”

The group is enthusiastic about the project, although Bello acknowledges the challenges they face given the housing market for low-income families in a county where even the cheapest rents are sky high.

“When we find apartments that meet all the criteria, it can be disheartening to see what you’re actually able to get,” she says.

The project has enabled the volunteer group to really think about what it means to be homeless.

“It’s been a humbling experience,” notes Bello. “It has been a big motivator for us to realize that there are families with young children who have no homes. Where are the kids studying and getting ready for school? Where are they eating dinner? It’s something most people have never thought about when it comes to homelessness.”

Right now, there are close to 40 available units on the list, which sounds like a lot until you learn that there are hundreds of low-income families in Union County looking for housing.

“Affordable housing just doesn’t exist right now,” says FPUC Manager of Volunteer Engagement Amy Jones.

But Jones isn’t discouraged and cites “Home Is Where the Heart Is” as a reason for optimism.

“The group has been a great help and a huge timesaver,” she says. “Not every unit on the list may lead to an apartment for us, but they each lead to a landlord. That’s an important relationship we can develop, another way to raise awareness, and that has been incredibly valuable.”

Jones explains that cultivating relationships with local landlords is an important part of FPUC’s quest for affordable housing. When landlords learn about Family Promise’s work and understand they aren’t just getting tenants, they’re getting the guarantee of an organization that works to ensure a family’s success, they’re often more open to renting to Family Promise guests and graduates. For example, one landlord agreed to rent space temporarily to FPUC at the onset of COVID, and the family were such good tenants, he offered them a lease of their own.

Jones adds, “Plus, landlords know other landlords. So, although there may not be a property available when we speak, they may call us back two weeks later to let us know about a unit that meets our criteria.”

Bello sums up the group’s work, “If we’re able to help get even one family in an apartment, that’s one more family with a roof overhead and a place to call home. That’s worth it!”