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Special Issue | Volunteers take a professional approach to the rehabilitation of mind, body, spirit, and bank account

Issue: "Effective Compassion," Sept. 1, 2007

INTERFAITH HOUSING COALITION

With spotlessly clean hallways, sleek office suites, and smartly dressed employees working on computers, the building appears to house a lucrative real estate or law firm. Helping homeless Dallas-area families for 22 years, the Interfaith Housing Coalition (IHC) has made professionalism a core belief in its biblically inspired rehabilitation program.

"The homeless families that come through our door won't be offered society's table scraps," said executive director Linda Hall, a staff member since IHC opened in 1985: "We don't try and shame a family for the specific event that brought them here." She proudly reminds visitors that everything from office desks to the bed sheets in residents' apartments has been donated, and then speaks of her clients: "It's about the choices they make going forward, and we want to give them the highest quality of living conditions, training, and counseling possible. We want to empower, not enable."

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The two churches that started Interfaith did so with a plan to provide free room and board, job training, and emotional, spiritual, and nutritional counseling. IHC each year serves 130 families, including 100 headed by single moms. In either a 3- or 12-month program, Interfaith attempts to instill good practices and healthy habits intended to prevent residents from ever needing to return. Eighty percent of Interfaith's "graduated" families have not returned or required aid from similar organizations within the next two years. Fifteen ex-IHC families have purchased their own homes in the last two years alone.

One person IHC helped, Cynthia Rushing, was in 1997 a recently divorced mother of four young daughters with no home and nowhere to go. Reduced to living in a friend's unfinished garage, the family used various buckets and containers to hold water for drinking and dishwashing, with still another bucket serving as a toilet. A friend's referral led Rushing and her daughters to IHC. Rushing remembers walking into her family's own IHC-provided apartment and going directly to the sink where she momentarily let warm water cascade from the spout as a reminder not to take for granted even the smallest amenity.

"The place was so beautifully decorated and furnished," Rushing says tearfully. "Just the sight of such pretty, clean things like new bed sheets and silverware lifted my spirits. Thinking about it now makes me see that that was what the people here at Interfaith were offering my family: the little things like love and care that you don't always notice until they are gone."

Rushing went through the employment programs during her family's three-month stay, eventually landing a position at UPS. IHC's staff members saw to everything from daily child-care services for her daughters while she was at work to a daily devotional time in the chapel. Rev. Deede Fletcher, an ordained minister for 30 years, requires attendance, not participation, each morning when residents gather for a time of Scripture reading and prayer.

Rushing's three-month stint at IHC was successful: She recommitted to her faith in God and maintained a savings program her financial advisor at IHC taught her. But in 2005, after a series of poor decisions, she had sizeable credit card debt and returned to IHC: "I wasn't happy to be back, but I committed myself to becoming a different person. Dealing with finances, balancing checkbooks, has never been my strong suit, and my financial advisor here straightened me out."

Rushing said, "Sometimes I felt like my counselors and case managers were treating me like a child as if they were my parents. But I realized that because my mom and dad passed away so long ago, I really didn't have a parent to call and ask how to do the things IHC has taught me. God provided surrogate parents for me here at Interfaith and they never judged, only encouraged." Today she works three jobs, her oldest daughter has an NYU degree and is currently a public-school teacher, her next two daughters are in college, and the youngest expects to be there soon.

Rushing's story is not typical, but the commitment to comprehensive rehabilitation of the mind, body, spirit, and bank account is nothing new at IHC. Kena Simmons, a former resident who is now an IHC case manager, four years ago left an abusive husband and corporate job for a 10 by 10 room at a Dallas-area battered women's shelter that became home for her and her three children.

Known to friends and co-workers as a "prayer warrior," Simmons thanked God every night for the safety and health of her children, but prayed for some way out of their daunting circumstances. Having grown up in a household that "always had what we needed . . . and more," Simmons struggled to maintain optimism during the month she spent at the shelter. Also referred to IHC by a friend, Simmons quickly embraced what she calls the "unconditional love" that was offered the moment she arrived there. Her family had a fully furnished, free apartment, and after she completed the IHC 12-month program, Interfaith in 2005 hired Simmons as a full-time case manager. She calls herself a living example to current residents of the transformation that is possible-"if they are ready to change themselves."

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