Illustration by Tyler Boss

RACHEL HAD BEEN in and out of shelters for so long—more than three years—it was the only kind of living her four-year-old son had ever really known.

"I tried to act as normal as possible, doing counting and ABCs and trying to teach him things," says Rachel, who's finally thriving in a home of her own again—thanks to a three-year-old assistance program that Portland City Hall will recognize on Wednesday, June 25.

But it wasn't, she insists, the only life she'd ever known.

True, she'd been on the streets once before, when her oldest boy, now 10, was still tiny. She'd been a single mom and had fallen behind on the rent.

But she met someone soon after, she says, and they married, and he worked while she stayed home for eight years and raised two more children. Maybe she didn't have everything she wanted. But she had her family. And a home. Until that went away, too.

She moved out after a divorce three years ago. And she was a single parent again, except this time with three kids to feed. She tried to make a go of it. But no one, she says, wanted to hire someone who hadn't worked a traditional job for years—or rent to someone with an eviction on their record.

"Nobody wants to give you a chance," she says. "It's just a vicious cycle."

For Rachel, it was a cycle that held all the way through this winter. In January, she arrived at a shelter in Goose Hollow run by Portland Homeless Family Solutions—and it wasn't long before they connected her with the helping hand she'd been longing for all those months.

A case manager helped her finally find housing this March, and a group called Village Support Network, a branch of the interfaith New City Initiative, assembled a team of volunteers and donations to make Rachel's new start stick. That team helped with furnishings, dishes, and appliances—but, more importantly, with childcare and college applications and budgeting. She's now three months into a six-month effort.

"I don't think I could have done it without them," she says. "I'd be all alone."

And now, some three years after it quietly started its work, the Village Support Network is due for a major shot in the arm from Portland City Hall.

Alongside a resolution praising the group's work—signaling a renewed political will to link up with churches after a car-camping program ran aground ["Nobody's Home," News, April 17, 2013]—officials say they're eventually hoping to commit $25,000 in city cash to help the group dramatically expand its capacity. Instead of working with 25 or so families like they're doing this year, the Village Support Network is hoping to serve about 50 by next year.

"It seems like a fairly good investment," says Josh Alpert, a policy director for Mayor Charlie Hales. Hales and Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the Portland Housing Bureau, are co-sponsoring the upcoming resolution.

Alpert says Hales wants the city to do more to promote—and benefit from—the kind of head-down, grinding charity work done by Portland's religious institutions. That emphasis comes as the city and Multnomah County work to better commingle their own spending on homelessness and housing.

Until recently, the county had assigned a staffer to work with faith-based groups. That unfilled position, says spokesman David Austin, will be the subject of a staffing assessment. In the meantime, the county is applauding the city's effort.

"We think linking up with the faith-based community around issues of housing and homelessness has proven to be very fruitful," Austin says. 

The city, says Alpert, noticed that "there is this gap," which is why they're looking to spend a little bit of money to help out.

"We'll try for a year," Alpert says, "and see the results as they scale up."

Paul Schroeder, who runs New City Initiative, confirms he approached the city for help with its expansion plans for Village Support Network. But he promises that infusion will be well spent.

Of 15 families helped during 2013, he says, only one had lost their new housing a year later. And nearly three-quarters saw a family member find a new job.

"It speaks to the great support these families receive," he says.

Finding the right formula for that support has required some refinements over the years.

Schroeder says his group now spends more time working with eligible families on finding precisely the right teams. The chemistry at stake is too important to force when you're getting so deeply involved in someone else's life. Monthly meetings are part of the deal—sometimes daily phone calls. One of the first families to go through the program, discussing their experiences at a recent meeting, said they felt like their team members sometimes treated them like they were stupid.

"We want to see a good vibe and make matches accordingly," Schroeder says.

Schroeder also was quick to point out that, though the overwhelming majority of teams have come from Christian churches, the denominations involved run from the righteous to the mellow. The Village Support Network also has had teams from a mosque and two synagogues. And its parent group, New City Initiative, has worked with a Buddhist temple.

"We're very explicit," he says. "This is not about proselytizing."

But if that kind of spiritual connection comes, too? Schroeder says that's just gravy.

Rachel says that's been the case with her team, from Sunnyside Adventist Church. They were like family. They threw a birthday party for her sons, full of toys. They take her calls—offering moral support—whenever she needs it. One woman knows what it's like raising boys, she says, "trying to do your best." And they also pray for her—a demonstration of affection that's made it easier to trust someone with her troubles.

She worries all the time she'll lose it all again. They tell her she won't. Not this time.

"You get that edge to you when you're homeless, that no one in the world cares," she says. "They really seem to care."