Angeline, Maximus and Tiana Littlefield ran around the playground at Twin Lakes on Wednesday, laughing in the afternoon sun.
Months earlier, the three of them had learned how to walk as they ran between beds at Northern Light United Church. As their parents, Mary and Steve Littlefield, recalled, the young children would clutch the covers of one bed until they were ready to take off toward another bed, where they’d hang on again.
Eventually, they didn’t need the support of the beds and could walk on their own.
Mary and Steve have gone through a similar process. They fell behind on rent in early 2018 and lost their housing. They and their five children spent time in hotel rooms and crashing on friends’ couches, until a friend of theirs mentioned a program in town that’s meant to help out families in need.
The program, Family Promise of Juneau, began operating two years ago this week and sets families up with various congregations in town to house them for a while as they get back on their feet. The Littlefields called Family Promise in June 2018 and shortly thereafter were approved to join.
Over the next four months or so, the Littlefields lived for a week or two at a time in places of worship including Chapel by the Lake and Northern Light United Church. By the time they graduated from the program and moved into an apartment of their own, Steve, 28, was working two full-time jobs to get them back on their feet while Mary took care of the kids.
Mary, 32, said in an interview that the volunteers in the program, and especially Executive Director Shannon Fisher, were integral not only in providing food and housing but in giving them hope as well.
“There were times when I was having doubts that we would find a place for our kids,” Mary said, “but talking with Shannon, she actually motivated us by saying, ‘You guys will get through this.’”
For Myrissa Gramlich, another mother who has graduated from Family Promise, that optimism was something she hadn’t experienced at any other shelter she’s been in.
“There’s a lot more support, too,” Gramlich said in an interview. “You kind of feel like you can get out of it. There’s somebody telling you that it’s not going to last forever.”
Gramlich, 28, was living in Pennsylvania when a bad domestic situation led her to being homeless with four children. She moved to Juneau, where her family lives, and tried to make ends meet for a while. Eventually, she was also referred to Family Promise and was in the program from November 2017 to January 2018.
She ended up getting a job with the state and now she works at a furniture warehouse, she said. Gramlich and the Littlefields both live in apartments in Douglas now, and though they don’t live lavishly, they’re back on their feet.
Family Promise is a national organization that works with faith communities to support homeless families. The Juneau affiliate started up April 30, 2017, and has helped 14 families go from homeless to housed, Fisher said. Two families are currently in the program, she said.
Fisher said she’s worked with three different Family Promise affiliates and she strongly believes in the program and its mission. Almost half the funding for the Juneau affiliate comes from fundraising events or individual donations, and 36 percent of the funding comes from foundations such as the Juneau Community Foundation and the Gaugine Foundation, Fisher said.
While the program is aimed toward helping these families in need, there are dozens of volunteers with the various congregations who benefit as well, Fisher said.
“Volunteers, it gives them a real concrete way to serve families, to learn from our neighbors that are in crisis and to learn about parts of our community that we don’t necessarily get to see every day,” Fisher said. “Family homelessness is really somewhat invisible here in Juneau, although it is prevalent.”
Irene Gallion, the housing and homelessness services coordinator for the City and Borough of Juneau, agreed with Fisher’s assessment. Gus Marx, grant coordinator for Juneau Youth Services, did as well. They both know that couch surfing is more common than many might think and that some residences have three or four families living there.
People from the ages of 0-17 make up about 9 percent of the city’s homeless population, according to the Homeless Management Information System, Gallion said. Marx said that during the most recent JYS fiscal year (from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018), the organization’s Cornerstone Shelter (for ages 10-19) sheltered 99 different people.
Neither of these statistics tells the whole story about family homelessness in Juneau. Fisher said that it often happens out of sight, as parents don’t want to have their children taken away from them.
After families finish the program, they often stay in touch with Fisher and volunteers with the program. As the Littlefields and Gramlich spoke with the Empire at a table at Twin Lakes, Fisher played with the Littlefield children on the playground. Though she’s been on her own for more than a year now, Gramlich still considers Family Promise a key part of her life.
“It’s like a second home now,” Gramlich said.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.