A hand up

By choosing clients carefully, one local nonprofit is putting families back into homes

The loss of a job landed Charles Ortiz (second from right), Lisa Bisher and her two children, Lauryn Warner, 8, and Justin Warner, 12, on the streets. Now thanks to Family Promise, Charles has a job, and the family has a roof over its head once more.

The loss of a job landed Charles Ortiz (second from right), Lisa Bisher and her two children, Lauryn Warner, 8, and Justin Warner, 12, on the streets. Now thanks to Family Promise, Charles has a job, and the family has a roof over its head once more.

Photo By anne stokes

When the economy was up and the construction industry was building at fullsteam, life was good for Charles Ortiz and Lisa Bisher.

But then the housing bubble burst, and the people on the ground, including Oritz, Bisher and her two young children, were the hardest hit. Ortiz lost his job, and as a result, the family lost its apartment. With no reserves to fall back on and seemingly no one to turn to for help, they soon wound up on the street.

“Charles was doing drywall and construction and he got laid off,” Bisher said. “We hadn’t been saving or preparing, and so we ended up losing our place.”

For three months, they bounced from church to church and program to program, desperately trying to regain a foothold on life and keep their young family together.

“It’s very tough,” Ortiz said. “We got to the point where we were going to have to separate and go our own ways; it was depressing. It felt like everyone had given up on us.”

Then one day, a flier for Family Promise of Sacramento caught Ortiz’s eye at one of the local churches.

Family Promise is a nonprofit agency that focuses on placing qualified families back into homes and providing them with the skills and opportunity to become self-sufficient. The organization uses a strict screening process to pick the families that it assists, roughly 12 a year. It claims that 80 percent of its clients successfully complete the program.

“The homeless situation in Sacramento is changing, but not because there is less homelessness,” said Jack McNary, executive director of Family Promise. “The face of homelessness is changing; there are more people like you and me.”

The key to the program’s success lies in the 125,000 volunteers that Family Promise has nationally, and the 140 or so programs like Sacramento’s from coast to coast. McNary was quick to point out that Family Promise is not a program for the chronically homeless, and that it is not a shelter. It isn’t unusual for clients to be subjected to random drug tests, and families have been asked to leave due to incompatibility issues.

Though it was not exactly easy for Ortiz and family to get into the program, his persistence paid off.

“I just kept calling Family Promise,” he said. “When they told me to call back next week, I called the next day.”

The Sacramento facility is nestled behind the Loaves & Fishes tract in a nondescript warehouse. Inside there is a comfortable computer facility and living room for those who need to fill out paperwork, apply for jobs or wash their clothes. While there is no overnight shelter, the area congregations in Family Promise’s support network take turns feeding and housing the families.

“At Family Promise we were able to do our community service, save up money, get our driver’s licenses back,” Bisher said. “The kids were totally secure and they totally grew when we were in the program; there was so much compassion and encouragement. My daughter would go to spend the night with her dad and she’d get homesick, even though we didn’t have a home, she’d get homesick and wanted to come back to Family Promise.”

The program helped the family obtain affordable housing, and Ortiz secured employment at Lawnman Landscape, a full-service landscaping business that has served the area for 18 years. Owner Burnie Lenau said Ortiz is an outstanding employee, and jumped at the chance to give him the shot he needed to pull his life back together.

“I feel very fortunate to be where I am, with my life experience,” Lenau said. “I really enjoy giving back and being part of the solution. When people make the life-changing decision to improve themselves and I can give them an opportunity, let’s say a hand up instead of a handout, to improve their lives, I look forward to the opportunity whenever we can do it.”

No one is more appreciative of this opportunity than Ortiz.

“Right now, everything is slowing up, but he is still keeping me working,” he said. “I really appreciate that. He could lay me off, too, if he wanted to, because it’s slow, but he keeps me working. He’s a great boss.”

Meanwhile, Bisher is currently attending a two-year adult program to earn an administrative assistant certificate.

“Other shelters and programs never seemed to give quite the leg up,” Lisa recalled. Family Promise “was more individual, more one on one.”

“You’re not just another name, which is much different from other programs,” she said.

Ortiz and Bisher said their family is slowly but surely regaining the dignity that it once had. They are considered a Family Promise “success story.”

“There are days were it feels like nothing is progressing,” Ortiz admitted. “It’s just a depressing time sometimes, because I feel like everything is at a standstill, but I know that I have a roof over my head. I need to realize that and that things are progressing. You can’t expect everything overnight.”