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Karen Olson taps religious groups to help the homeless

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After volunteering on her own to help the homeless in New York City and near her home in Union County, N.J., Olson held a conference that drew 200 guests and helped to raise awareness of the issue.

In the process of meeting regularly to find ways to help those in need, Olson says, the idea was hatched to establish a network of congregations in a variety of faith communities to provide shelter to homeless families. Since running a shelter requires extensive resources, a group of faith communities would share the task, rotating on a weekly basis to provide coverage throughout the year.

The 11 congregations rotated to provide shelter and meals. A van was acquired to transport families to a day program at the local YMCA. Within six weeks, Olson says the families wound up finding affordable housing.

The idea has spread ever since, and now involves more than 6,000 congregations.

Olson says the model of rotating congregations makes the program manageable for small faith communities.

“It allows many congregations to participate, and many volunteers to get involved,” she says. “Families not only feel supported, but many contacts grow out of the involvement.”

And the program has seen results – 77 percent of families served find affordable housing, many in a matter of weeks.

Over the quarter-century history of Family Promise, Olson says, the root of homelessness – poverty – has remained the same.

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