Claas Ehlers: A Future Begins at Home

February 11, 2021

A Future Begins at Home: The Zovak-Ryan Family

As part of our ongoing conversation on homelessness, we asked members of the Family Promise network and individuals working to serve families experiencing homelessness to share their personal thoughts and reflections on Family Promise and the issue of family homelessness. These writers are true thought leaders, using their skills and expertise to develop and implement creative solutions that are changing the lives of parents and children in their communities. This article about A Future Begins at Home is by Claas Ehlers, CEO of Family Promise.

We call our programs to keep families from experiencing homelessness A Future Begins at Home. That name is catchy and direct. It lends itself to easy to grasp concepts rooted in our collective memories: A child studying for a test at a bedroom desk. A work uniform being ironed in the morning. A family sharing dinner at the table.

The absence or instability of a home cancels each of those images. By extension, it cancels those children’s futures.

As we have expanded our programs beyond shelter, we have found that many solutions are remarkably simple. In Wyoming, a new set of tires kept a family from coming into shelter. In Indiana, mediation kept a mom at her sister’s apartment until her first paycheck could secure their own place. In New Jersey, a little help with the grocery bill kept that dining room table full and the household together.

All of these are examples of diversion, a crucial part of our work to expand the front end of our services, the actions we take so families never experience the disruption, despair, and trauma of homelessness.

You could call diversion a program—I have. And I’ve been kindly schooled that it is not. It is a practice. And that is its most essential and enduring part.

Diversion means looking to say yes. It means identifying the strengths a family has. It means mapping the resources and possibilities of every situation to uncover the solutions that exist.

It doesn’t mean we don’t provide shelter services. Those will be needed for the foreseeable future and our shelter model is highly effective and transformative. But the sheer number of families in crisis speaks to diverse approaches and strategies. It also speaks to the most powerful tool we have: the equity of resilient, committed families who are invested in ensuring their children can have the future they deserve.

This is why we have emphasized that Family Promise is a holistic response to family homelessness, one that empowers families and engages the community. What started as an ad hoc effort to shelter families in the mid-1980s has evolved to lead the response to a crisis that has become a grim institution. We have done tremendous work sheltering, preventing, stabilizing. But lasting change is not going to come from tactics alone.

That’s why we believe every Affiliate practices diversion, even if it is not an explicitly delineated program. We have always believed in the intrinsic strength of the families we serve. Even in Affiliates whose operations are primarily shelter, intake prioritizes looking for solutions, not entry into shelter.

We urge Affiliates to embrace that core value of dynamic innovation in the service of empathy and empowerment that inhabits everything they do and to lean into it.

Prevent homelessness with rental assistance and services. Give families shelter in their crisis. Help them build assets and skills in stabilization programs. And do it all in the spirit of diversion—where a few words, a targeted purchase, a commitment of support—makes sure children’s futures are not defined by the loss of a home.

Because it is a practice, not just a program. And it will give more children the future they deserve.

Dial 211 to find more resources near you.