The Promise of Hope
Local nonprofit helps homeless find independence
By Jessica Laskey
Lucky for Marsha Spell, she likes “living on the edge.” That is why 10 years ago, she packed up everything she owned and drove from her former home in Southern California to Sacramento to take a job as executive director of Family Promise. The nonprofit organization helps homeless families achieve lasting independence through a 90-day mentoring program.
“Honestly, it’s a God thing,” says Spell, who now lives in Placerville but hails from Tennessee. “I think this is where I was supposed to be. It wasn’t planned. I just followed where I was led. I’ve always wanted to help people—I’m a try-to-fix-it person—and people always seem to call me. Maybe it’s the Southern accent.”
Marsha Spell has made a career of helping people since she graduated from the University of Memphis with a degree in business administration (which she says is now called nonprofit management).
Over the past 40-plus years, she’s worked with nonprofits that deal with domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as for a local hospice agency. She had just retired as executive director of the hospice agency when the Family Promise position came calling.
“The fact that the organization is all faiths is what really drew me,” Spell says. Family Promise works with local congregations of churches and synagogues to house and feed families in the process of completing the program, which serves four families at a time. “We have people who are Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Unitarian, non-denominational, Jewish—we all work together. We couldn’t do it without them, so thank God they’ve stepped up.”
Family Promise of Sacramento started helping families in April 2005. Families make up the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, with woman and children making up at least half of those affected. The organization has two primary goals for each family: permanent housing and the skills required to make homelessness less likely to reoccur. The nonprofit’s trained staff provide individualized case management and mentoring to fit the unique needs of every family and help them set specific goals and strategies designed to dismantle the obstacles preventing their success. They also teach them to find jobs and permanent housing. When Marsha Spell started, 34 families had graduated. Now, 248 families have successfully completed the program.
“The very first thing I tackle with them is budgeting,” Spell says. “That seems to be a lot of people’s problem. We require that they save 70 percent of the income that’s left over after paying basic bills, which equates to the amount they’ll need to qualify for transitional housing after they’re done with our program. But we bring those concepts in in a soft way—we’re not trying to control them, we’re trying to show them, ‘You need to take control, to house yourself and feed yourself.’ All the other things are extra.”
To that end, Family Promise hosts workshops on topics like building credit—things “we’re never taught in school,” Spell says—while providing temporary housing, daily meals and day center activities at area congregations so parents can focus on getting their financial lives back on track.
“Can you imagine being in high school and sleeping at churches at night?” Spell says. “We’re here to give these people support and make life as normal for them as possible. This job’s been very hard—our guests have to trust us even when they’ve quit believing in themselves and have no hope.”
There are plenty of success stories, however, to make the tough job worth it. Spell says that many of the high school students who’ve come through the program have received full scholarships to college and 16 families have even bought their own homes since graduation. That’s all thanks to Family Promise’s unique combination of support services—physical, financial, educational and emotional.
“By the time they leave, they’re ready to go out into the ‘real world,’” Spell says. “It’s a wonderful partnership.”