Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis: How Ted Taylor of Family Promise Assists Homeless Families to Return to Self-Sufficiency

What keeps me going is my faith in God and the calling to do His work. He has blessed me beyond measure. It is the least I can do to dedicate my life to serving those less fortunate in the world in gratitude for the blessings He has generously given me.

As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ted Taylor, Executive Director of Family Promise of Greater Phoenix, an Arizona nonprofit that rescues primarily first-time homeless families from the streets and provides emergency shelter and basic needs in a sixty-day program designed to assist their return to self-sufficiency. Having rescued over 1,300 families since his call to serve in 2010, Ted continues to believe that his greatest blessing has been to have over 350 kids per year in this program, as he and his wife Debbie were not blessed with children themselves.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your personal background, and how you grew up?

I grew up in Globe, Arizona. Phoenix was the big city, once a year trip. My father worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and my mother was a nurse. I grew up raising 4-H animals and building forts out in the sticks. I married my high school sweetheart, Debbie, after graduating from the University of Arizona. I worked in the cotton business, as a merchant for 15 years, followed by building a company producing dog grooming tables for professional groomers. After I sold that company, I helped struggling companies to improve their businesses and ended up leading a technology company focused on employee health systems.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?

While in the cotton business, I was moved to south Texas to work in the cotton sample rooms with mostly migrant and prison labor. I fell in love with my fellow workers and made a permanent connection to those less fortunate in the world. Years later, having volunteered for three years with Family Promise, my Pastor, who happened to be the Chairman of the Board at Family Promise, came to me to say the Executive Director was stepping down and that I should apply. With my wife’s support, and a feeling I was being called, I applied and was accepted. That was my first real exposure to helping families who become homeless, and that decision made all the difference.

Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

I can speak to homelessness in families, but not the complexity of homelessness and single adults. What has happened in families is that in-tact families have declined from 70% in 1960 to less than 50% today. As a result, 84% of homeless families are single mothers with young children. Unfortunately, the cards are stacked against these moms, with childcare, schools and business problems escalating when a child is sick. Likewise, for every 100 units of extremely low-income housing needed in the Phoenix Metro Area, only 30 are available on any given day. As a result, families are doubling up at an alarming rate, estimated at nearly 65% of school age homeless children. The housing crisis is getting worse in Maricopa county, with little prospect of adding additional affordable housing in the near future. Exacerbating this problem, families from out-of-state are flocking to Arizona, without money, in hopes of finding employment and affordable housing. I do not see any long-term solutions in place to fix these problems. We continue to believe that policy initiatives aimed at building multi-family housing capacity are the future of housing solutions for lower income families. Unfortunately, that takes real political courage, and the support of voters, which is difficult to come by these days.

For the benefit of our readers, can you describe the typical progression of how one starts as a healthy young person with a place to live, a job, an education, a family support system, a social support system, a community support system, to an individual who is sleeping on the ground at night? How does that progression occur?

Every family we encounter has a different story for how they arrived at our doorstep. For many, it is the lack of affordable housing. One in four renters spends more than half their income on housing. If a catastrophic event happens, such as a health emergency or losing a job, this puts an immediate stress on the family for making choices for how they spend their money. Many families in these kinds of situations must often make the choice between putting food on the table for their children or paying the rent. When resources for basic needs are challenged, families will often choose to ensure their children are fed before paying rent.

Family Promise of Greater Phoenix focuses specifically on serving families experiencing homelessness. For families that suddenly find themselves homeless, they may not have a network of friends or family who may have the room to appropriately house all family members. There are also not enough permanent shelter facilities to temporarily shelter families while they experience homelessness, which is why we have relied on our community-based model to shelter families as we work to find them a permanent housing solution.

A question that many people who are not familiar with the intricacies of this problem ask is, “Why don’t homeless people just move to a city that has cheaper housing?” How do you answer this question?

The challenge to find affordable housing is everywhere, no matter the size or location of a city or town. If a family is challenged to find affordable housing in one city, they will likely experience the same challenge in any nearby city. To be frank, there just is not enough affordable housing. For every 100 units of extremely low-income housing needed in Arizona, only 30 units are actually available. Therefore, the problem is getting worse every year.

A family may also lack the resources to identify areas where there may be more affordable housing options, or to attempt to move to another city or town.

If someone passes a homeless person on the street, what is the best way to help them?

We are all brothers and sisters in the grand scheme of things. I have learned that few people are exempt from catastrophic challenges. I believe our highest purpose is to serve our fellow man. Therefore, treating people with dignity is my first answer. For example, a conversation may go like this: “Hi, my name is Ted. May I ask your name? Well, John, I have a care bag in my car and would be happy to give it to you. Would that be of help John? In the kit are snack bars, hygiene items, gel sanitizer, daily essentials, and phone numbers for professional help, including Family Promise.” I have learned that people asking for help need more help than short-term money. Providers are their best connection. They know how to connect people to the services they really need. That is my suggestion.

What is the best way to respond if a homeless person asks for money for rent or gas?

I would suggest you carry referral cards with you. We have them at Family Promise. If you will email me, I will be happy to send some to you. My email is: director@familypromiseAZ.org. Please indicate the general area of need, i.e. shelter, domestic violence, suicide prevention, housing assistance, food, etc.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?

Instead of building shelters, we build community. The key to our community is the volunteers at 52 host congregations — both Churches and Synagogues all over the Valley — who provide bedrooms and a hot “family-style” meal every night. They do it a week at a time, creating a feeling of family, then handing off to the next group of congregations.

The power of that network is beyond words. Our children heal from homelessness through the love of congregations. They stay healthier because they have balanced meals, shelter, and an engaged community. I always like to say that if you want to heal parents from homelessness, just heal their children. That is exactly what our congregations do. In 20 years of existence, we have rescued over 1,300 families from homelessness.

Our objective is to rescue families quickly before the devastating effects of homelessness create a downward spiral of poverty, reliance on shelters, accompanied by academic/health problems and ultimately foster care for the children. In our Emergency Shelter, we focus on resolving the family’s immediate crisis, followed by providing food, safe shelter, clothing, daycare, schools, employment, and social services. Within 30 days the family has generally stabilized, and a parent is employed. We continue to give encouragement and case management while they transition from homelessness to self-sufficiency within 60 days of arrival.

We are also the first homeless shelter in Arizona to provide an on-site pet sanctuary, allowing children going through the crisis of homelessness to keep their furry friend, an important point of stability for kids whose life is in turmoil.

At Family Promise, we know that the story does not end once the family graduates from emergency shelter into housing. To meet this need, we operate a Graduate Program focused on building a support community among our graduates under the guidance of our aftercare specialist. The program includes continued counseling and life-skills programs such as cash management. With frequent contact, newly independent families have a resource to help them navigate the bumps in the road to self-sufficiency, as well as celebrate their successes and achievements.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also how has it affected your ability to help people?

Homeless families are more at-risk during crises and pandemics than other populations as housing instability limits access to hygiene. Families facing homelessness are not always able to secure basic needs such as cleaning products and sanitizers. Additionally, the stress of housing instability and lack of access to nutrition and wellness make families more susceptible to disease. The coronavirus pandemic has caused millions to lose their jobs, which puts them at higher risk for housing insecurity as well.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, we relied on a network of volunteer churches and synagogues to shelter and feed the families we serve while assisted these families on their journey back to self-sufficiency. As mentioned earlier, we have had to suspend our community-based model, to protect our volunteers and families from a potential spread of the virus.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

When I first became the Executive Director of Family Promise of Greater Phoenix nearly 10 years ago, I was asked by the only other staff member how I defined a family. I knew how I felt, but felt it was important to reach out to the national office to understand their position. When I called the national office the next day, the CEO, Claas Ehlers, answered the phone. His answer inspires me to this day, as it is the true heart of Family Promise… “We define a family as who the children see as their parent(s), who also have legal custody.” I have learned that this is the heart of Family Promise, welcoming all families, regardless of composition, to love them back to health and self-sufficiency.

Without sharing real names, can you share a story with our readers about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your work?

At Family Promise it is often heard: ‘this is our first time being in this situation.’ If the family is lucky, they have friends and family that can help them out until they can get back on their feet.

Berger and Elida, their two children, and their two dogs, did not have anyone to turn to when they were evicted from their home. They went on the internet and looked up shelters that also take pets and found Family Promise. The two dogs were certified therapy pets for Elida, who relied on them to help her with PTSD. Words could not describe how grateful this family was for being able to keep the entire family intact.

Berger is extremely outgoing and introduced his family to everyone they met at the shelter. The two kids Jonathon (13) and Hope (11) quickly bonded with Snowball, Family Promise’s therapy cat. Elida made sure that the children maintained their school attendance, as Jonathon and Hope were excelling academically and in their extracurricular activities of band and theater. Berger began looking for employment immediately.

Berger soon had the opportunity to apply for and secure a job with Burns Pest Control, because of the company’s connection with Family Promise. Berger had to pass the state certification test. He failed the first two attempts and had one remaining opportunity. Berger’s trainer spent extra time reviewing the information with him and on his third attempt, Berger passed with flying colors! This meant Berger could have his own route and was well on his way to making a very sustainable living.

A little-known fact about Berger is that he is an honorably discharged veteran. Berger did not share his veteran status with people, because he felt there were many veterans in greater need of assistance. But because Berger was a veteran, he and his family qualified for rapid re-housing through Supportive Services for Veteran Families.

Sixty-three days after they came into the program, Berger, Elida, Jonathon, Hope, and their two dogs moved into their own apartment. There is no doubt that the family would be able to sustain themselves and continue to thrive.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?

  1. Through individual state policies, require multi-family housing developers to provide 5% of their units for low income families
  2. Begin addressing the root causes of the breakup of the family unit.
  3. Embrace the role public schools play as collaborative partners in helping families in need. They are the true front-line workers with families at-risk of homelessness.

If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

  1. Family reunification incentives, rewarding families that stay together.
  2. Redefine homelessness for families, nationally, to include families who are doubled up (H.R. 2001)
  3. Federal legislation to incentivize the development of affordable housing across the United States.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

What keeps me going is my faith in God and the calling to do His work. He has blessed me beyond measure. It is the least I can do to dedicate my life to serving those less fortunate in the world in gratitude for the blessings He has generously given me.

Do you have hope that one day this great social challenge can be solved completely?

I trust in God’s timing, mercy, and grace. Yes, it will be solved, but not likely on our timing. Our only value is in looking out for our fellow man with the characteristics He calls us to exhibit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Human struggle is hard.

Mike was covered in tattoos and crying as he entered the Family Promise shelter behind his wife and two children. It startled me, so I asked what was going on. He said they were tears of joy, as it was the first time he had been allowed to be in shelter with his family. Most shelters separate the women and kids from the men, but not Family Promise.

You will take it home with you.

Exiting families who choose to fight or use drugs while in the Family Promise program is incredibly painful. The children do not understand, and their fear is totally honest. It is very difficult to get out of your mind. Unfortunately, it is a part of this work.

Everyone is fighting a mighty battle.

Mike, mentioned above, was an amazing husband and father. Within weeks he had three jobs, savings in place, and was headed toward self-sufficiency. Then, one day, he came in drunk. I have never been able to get that picture out of my mind. It was out-of-character for Mike. He was so kind, hard-working, loving to his family. It just broke my heart. The next day, as I spoke with Mike about his choices, I realized that he had been told all his life that he would amount to nothing. This success was just too much to overcome his own self-image. Years later, I encountered Mike on the streets. He had lost his family, was poisoned in alcohol, and lost forever. My heart still breaks.

Walk beside them. It is the only way.

It was job interview time for one of our dads. He had no nice clothing, but the interview was within the hour. He was dressed for failure. I always have a set of nicer clothes in the office, just in case I have an unexpected meeting or interview with the media. That day, I realized the real purpose of those clothes. He was exactly my size. It changed him, inside and out. I drove him to the interview. I remember him walking to the interview office door, from my car, like a proud father. The joy was pure, and I knew all was right at that moment. Yes, he got the job.

The poor can teach you faith

I was air-lifted out of a canyon 8 years ago. It was quite a journey of pain, uncertainty, and fear. After returning to work, a client in our office came up to give me a hug and said, “You know the Lord had a purpose for you in that Canyon.” She was right. I just did not realize his messenger would also be a client.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would talk about embracing the beauty of our brothers and sisters to the south, and how together we could change the world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Zig Ziglar: “You can get everything you want out of life, if you will just help enough other people get what they want out of life.” I started learning this principle in sales training, but later recognized the life principle in it, which has changed everything.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Mike Pence — His faith.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find me on Facebook and LinkedIn:

https://www.facebook.com/ted.taylor.3133/

https://www.linkedin.com/in/ted-taylor-a9991a12/

Visit our website at FamilyPromiseAZ.org or follow us on social media on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!


Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis: How Ted Taylor of Family Promise Assists Homeless Families to Return was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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