Northwest Interfaith Hospitality Network turns 20 as it expands into new sections of the city
When Rachel Falkove first got involved with the Northwest Interfaith Hospitality Network, she didn't think much about how long it would last.
Concerned citizens and congregations simply recognized that homeless families in the community needed help and got to work.
"We were pretty much taking it one, two years at a time," said Falkove, who began working with the nonprofit as a volunteer. "I don't think we could have anticipated the number of people who would still need our services today."
Twenty years later, Falkove is the executive director of an organization which has served about 300 families to date.
Over the past two decades, the long-time Mt. Airy resident said the organization has evolved as it has shifted its focus away from simply being an emergency shelter provider.
The group now offers a sophisticated network of resources for participating families that come into play long after their temporary stays — between two and six weeks — at one of about 20 host congregations, many of which are located in Mt. Airy and Germantown.
"We moved from just focusing on getting families into housing to keeping people from recycling back into the emergency shelter system," said Falkove. "The idea is that we're trying to end homelessness for the next generation."
The decision to expand the organization's scope came 10 years ago, about a year before Falkove took over the reins. She was a board member at the time.
With the organization facing an uncertain future, Falkove said the board grappled with whether it was best to grow the program to accommodate more families or offer more services to a smaller group.
Fearing that the former might compromise the individual attention given to each family, always the organization's hallmark, the board decided to adopt more of a full-service model.
Keeping in touch
NIHN staff would now stay in contact with families who wanted to do so as they transitioned to permanent housing and, especially, afterwards. Falkove noted that helping an individual family remain off the streets is a process that happens in stages. The timing is dictated by a given family's needs and situation.
"We realized that they needed after-care case management," said Falkove. "They needed help getting material goods for their house, they needed furniture. Many of them were able to face financial literacy training and financial planning for their family differently once they got out of the shelter setting and into their own homes."
Families can also receive help with career and education planning, including for college.
A decade later, the board's decision appears to have been the right one. Approximately 92 percent of the families that NIHN works with never return to a shelter situation.
Still, not surprisingly, homelessness remains a persistent problem in the city.
Falkove said NIHN, which operates with a four-person staff buttressed by a host of community volunteers, receives dozens of requests from families each week.
"While we used to get maybe five to 10 calls a week from families, now we're getting 35 or 40," said Falcove. "Our program only can accommodate four families at a time."
Moving into new neighborhoods
Many of those calls are coming from Northeast Philadelphia, where the organization recently expanded its services.
For years, Northeast Philadelphia families have called NIHN for help, not wanting to go through the city's public-shelter system and end up at a location far away from their support network.
Northeast Philadelphia currently does not have a public family shelter program. The city has tried to set up locations in the past, but pushback from the community was always strong.
Falkove said NIHN believed it could fill the need and potentially calm some of the clamor over the issue in the process.
"We are so up close and personal that we [thought we] would be a good program for Northeast Philadelphia because it would give people more understanding and we're not large so it doesn't really threaten a community," she said.
Shrinking support for nonprofits
The move comes as support for small nonprofits from large foundations is dwindling.
NIHN has actually had to cut staff as it has doubled the number of families it serves each year; that total is now between 22 and 25 families.
They are also following — some more than others — close to 90 alumnae families who have chosen to stay connected in some way.
The financial woes mean that the organization will just need to rely even more on volunteers to keep things moving. But, that's what it has always done.
"The real magic behind our progress," said Falkove, "is the generosity of our community, the generosity of the congregations and the amazing volunteers."