Family Promise of OC Helps Orange County Families Overcome Homelessness


In 1981, Karen Olson, founder of Family Promise, was walking down the streets of New York when a homeless woman asked her for help. Karen stopped and bought the woman named Millie a sandwich and then stayed to listen to her story. Millie shared with her what homelessness felt like and how people treated her. She told Karen that she felt disconnected from society and struggled with self-worth; no one cared about who she was or where she came from, only that she was dirty, disheveled, and worthless.  

Homelessness by the Numbers

Today’s homeless men and women don’t look or feel that different from Millie. As of January 2020, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness reported approximately 161,548 people experiencing homelessness in California alone. To understand the numbers, consider who makes up the population California’s homeless community:

  • 8,030 families
  • 11,401 veterans
  • 12,172 unaccompanied young adults (18-24 years)
  • 51,785 individuals experiencing chronic homelessness

According to Orange County’s 2022 Point In Time Count, there are 389 families currently experiencing homelessness throughout the county. That’s 486 adults and 715 children, not including all individual men and women living on the streets, in cars, shelters, or temporary motels.

It was for people like these men, women, and children that Karen began passing out sandwiches with her two sons on the streets of New York. However, she soon realized it would take more than a meal and a listening ear to get people back on their feet. Karen started reaching out to members of the community who could provide shelter, meals, and support services, relying heavily on volunteers eager to help their homeless neighbors find jobs and restore their hope. 

Hope and Housing

Family Promise was founded in 1986 as an interfaith hospitality network, just five years after Karen first met Millie. Today, the organization seeks to help families experiencing homelessness achieve housing stability through emergency shelter, short-term housing, and graduate support services. With approximately 40% of Americans just $400 away from financial distress, Family Promise works diligently with families to not only get them housed, but to keep them housed.

A brief history:

  • 1986 – The first interfaith hospitality network opens 
  • 1988 – The second network is formed in New Jersey; the National Interfaith Hospitality Network is formed
  • 1992 – NIHN is awarded the Point of Light award by President and Barbara Bush
  • 2003 – NHIN changes its name to Family Promise to better reflect its values  
  • 2012 – Family Promise of OC Affiliate opens  

As the 175th Affiliate, Family Promise of OC continues to serve families much the same today as the community members who formed the first interfaith hospitality network. Though each Affiliate adapts to serve its community, Family Promise of OC continues to rely on religious congregations, volunteer support, and community resources for housing, meals, essential items, education, counseling, graduate support, and individualized case management. 

“We meet families where they are at,” says Cyndee, Executive Director of Family Promise of OC. “Every family is unique – how they became homeless, how long they have been homeless, what barriers they have to get housing.” And with housing shortages on the rise, and skyrocketing gas and food prices, families need all the help they can get.

Unlike many organizations, Family Promise of OC relies heavily on tangible donations, including gas and food gift cards, toiletries and personal care items, kitchenware, bed and bath supplies, and specific children’s items. “We provide these services so people can save and pay off any debt so they can really move forward,” Cyndee explains.

On the Horizon

What’s ahead for Family Promise of OC? In 2019 Family Promise OC served 48 families. They are the only organization that has not had a family fall back into homelessness since 2020, surpassing the 40% national success rate of getting people into housing for a minimum of six months. 

“We know that 100% rate won’t last forever,” says Cyndee. That’s why Family Promise of OC is thinking long-term and creating solutions to the growing housing crisis in California. To date, Family Promise of OC has raised $3 million toward the House of Ruth Building Campaign, a housing development project designed in partnership with HomeAid Orange County and the City of Tustin. Once completed in summer 2023, the House of Ruth will serve more than 200 families struggling with homelessness each year. That’s over half the families currently struggling with homelessness in Orange County, adding to those Family Promise of OC already serves through partner congregations and organizations.

Next Steps

Like Karen Olson in the organization’s founding years, Family Promise of OC is always thinking forward and long-term. Though necessary, it’s not just about serving meals and giving people a place to sleep for the night. The work Family Promise of OC does is about helping families struggling with homelessness in tangible ways, giving them hope for the future, and bringing families into stable homes

To learn more about Family Promise of OC’s work in Orange County or to get involved, visit their website or follow them online.      

Orange County community gathers to celebrate House of Ruth groundbreaking on May 3, 2022.

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