Durham congregations house homeless families

By Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — When the Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network opened on Jan. 8, 1994, the only emergency shelters in the community forced homeless families to split up, with fathers needing to stay in separate shelters from the ones their families stayed in.

“There was really no emergency shelter in Durham for families that would keep families together,” says Catherine Pleil, executive director of DIHN.

Looking for a way to keep homeless families whole, an interfaith group known as Durham Congregations in Action looked at strategies throughout the U.S. and found a national model in a group of congregations in Summit, N.J., that took turns providing emergency shelter.

The result was DIHN, which now consists of over 30 congregations and, over the past 20 years, has provided over 40,000 nights of shelter and over 100,000 meals to roughly 265 families.

Now, the agency is looking for ways to help homeless families get back on their feet by providing transitional housing, expanding support services it provides to better serve clients with mental health challenges, and better involving its more than 800 volunteers in its work.

“We’re looking at what is really the best way to serve our guests,” says Pleil, who worked as a volunteer for DIHN for over 10 years before becoming executive director in 2009 after retiring from a 30-year career at IBM.

Three families at any given time stay for up to three months in emergency housing provided by 12 “host” congregations, with the other congregations providing food and other assistance.

The families rotate among the congregations, staying from Sunday night through Saturday night at one congregation before moving to another for a week. Each host congregation provides a separate room for each family in a classroom, office or other available space.

Within those three months, DIHN tries to help each family find jobs and permanent housing.

Faced with a long waiting list, Pleil says, DIHN in December 2012 began renting a house that has space for two additional families, and provides space for a third family in the house it owns that serves as its headquarters.

Those three additional families also can stay for up to three months, and they get dinner once a week.

DIHN also provides support services such as helping families find day care, arrange for a bus from the Durham Public Schools to pick up their children, and find jobs.

It also partners with other agencies such as Dress for Success and the JobLink Career Center for the City of Durham to help its clients create resumes and prepare for job interviews and the world of work.

And in 2010, with a grant from Durham County, it added a program that provides support services for 24 families for a year after they leave the emergency housing its member congregations provide.

DIHN, which operates with an annual budget of about $250,000 and a staff of three people, generates revenue from congregations, events, individuals, corporations, and government, which now accounts for 30 percent of its revenue, down from 40 percent in 2011.

The agency now is studying the feasibility of providing families with stationary housing, rather than having them rotate among congregations, providing more support for clients with mental illness and more stability for children, and engaging volunteers in ways that make better use of their skills.

The goal, Pleil says, is to find a “different service model that would serve our clients even better and engage our volunteers in a way that would be better for our guests and more fulfilling to volunteers.”

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