Iraq war veteran Kawayn Johnson and his homeless family came to Family Promise in Anoka County hoping to find a home and work.
Kawayn and Clarise Johnson, who had divorced after his military service, not only found a home and a job, but ended up getting remarried with a little help from new friends.
Clarise Johnson found an apartment for her family of five on the Internet while using a computer at the day center of Family Promise. The nonprofit agency is an interfaith network working with 18 Anoka County congregations that take turns providing shelter, meals and activities for homeless families a week at a time in their churches. The Johnsons, including three kids ages 6 to 11, lived at the churches with three or four other families for nearly two months.
The families are taken by van at about 7 each morning to the day center, housed at Lord of Life Lutheran in Ramsey. The Johnsons, both 33, obtained marital counseling at the church. Clarise found a short-term house-cleaning job.
About the time the family was moving into their apartment on Nov. 1, they received a notice from the Veterans Administration saying Johnson would receive little rent money if he was living with an unmarried partner, who would have to share rent costs. When they told Family Promise Executive Director Irene Rodriguez, she asked if they were considering remarriage, as being married would increase Kawayn’s VA benefits enough to cover the rent at their apartment in Plymouth.
“I really wanted to be married,” Clarise recalled telling Rodriguez. Kawayn, sitting nearby in their living room, said the same.
So Rodriguez blasted e-mails to some of Family Promise’s 800 mostly church volunteers in early November.
“We put together a quaint wedding for them in about 10 days,” Rodriguez said.
Faith Lutheran in Coon Rapids gave the couple a gift card to buy wedding shower gifts, Rodriguez said. A baker made a two-tier wedding cake. A retired minister married them Nov. 18 and provided lunch afterward at his Ramsey home. Lord of Life hosted the reception.
During the ceremony, when the pastor asked for rings, the Johnsons were amazed to see Rodriguez produce two gold bands donated by Gould’s Jewelry of Anoka.
“I was crying because so many blessings had come from our [homeless] situation,” Clarise said.
“It was the wedding I always wanted her to have,” her husband said. At their first wedding, it was just the two of them and their baby boy in an Alabama courthouse. That was in 2002, six months before he was deployed to serve in the Iraq war as a member of the U.S. Army, Kawayn Johnson said. He returned a year later with post traumatic stress disorder and began drinking, which precipitated their divorce, he said. He quit drinking when they reunited about a year ago.
‘Kind of crazy,’ but homelike
Clarise Johnson said living in the Anoka churches was a godsend after staying in her sister’s cramped apartment or living in their car.
“We had our own space for the family. The volunteers were very welcoming,” she said.
“It was kind of crazy, but it was like living in a house,” her husband added.
Clarise Johnson said Rodriguez and Family Promises’ social worker (the agency’s only two paid staff) were supportive when she got overwhelmed with the situation or dealing with Kawayn. He said he is being treated for PTSD and has trust issues after being shot at by seemingly harmless teenagers in the Iraq fighting.
“There was always somebody to talk to,” Clarise said. “I felt we were injured and they were the crutches that held us up.”
About the agency
Family Promise is the only agency providing housing for homeless families in Anoka County, said Karen Skepper, a county manager who works with homeless programs. With its 800 volunteers and job search resources, “Family Promise plays a big role in the county,” she said. “It is an organization that is on the street helping the families with the core services they need right now.”
The number of homeless families in the county dropped by 41 percent from 2011 to 2012, according to annual counts taken in January, Skepper said. In the same period, homeless individuals increased by 53 percent. Overall homelessness is increasing in the county and state, she said. The county has several shelters for homeless individuals.
Family Promise, which opened in September 2010, is part of a national network in 41 states, Rodriguez said. The Anoka County branch serves about 27 families a year. Ninety percent of them find a home within 90 days, the maximum time the agency will house them, she said. After that they return to friends or relatives, other agencies or the streets.
“It really is the volunteers that are Family Promise,” Rodriguez said. “They are the front line.”
One of those volunteers is Sandy Forrest, 66, of Blaine. She helps make meals at Unity North church and sometimes lets the guest kids play video games on her cellphone. She also made Johnson’s boutonniere and the bride’s bouquet at their wedding.
“I have so much, I need to share it, ” Forrest said. “We help get them back on their feet. … It’s an uphill good feeling.”
Johnson said that before he came to Family Promise, “I was so down in the dumps I didn’t care anymore.”
He said besides the wedding and housing, church people took him to counseling and VA appointments. Their generosity helped him see God was at work, he said.
“Pretty much everything in here was given to us,” Johnson said, looking around their simply furnished, three-bedroom apartment that has a big flat-screen TV.
“It made me realize that there are still a lot of good people out there.”