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Terry Lindemann confronts homelessness one family at a time

Vegas Voices is a weekly question-and-answer series featuring notable Las Vegans.

“Each unique family has their own story,” Terry Lindemann says. And she’s heard a lot of them.

But the executive director of Family Promise, which puts homeless families on a turnaround path, has a story of her own.

“I grew up in children’s homes in California. I was a ward of the state because both of my parents were severely disabled,” she says. “My mother was severely mentally ill, and my father was quite an accomplished alcoholic.”

And so the 67-year-old knows “what it feels like on the other side of the desk: I’m not talking down to you; I want to talk with you. I want to hear your story.”

Family Promise celebrates its own 20-year story with its first Family Day on Oct. 15 at the Henderson Pavilion. The awareness event includes a car show, kids zone and four hours of entertainment from Las Vegas performers who have taken the organization to heart.

“We’ve been doing this for 20 years and still hear, ‘Gosh I’ve never heard of you,’ ” Lindemann says. “It could be because our services are so dispersed across the community, but maybe we just need to do a major event like this to get more people out.”

Catholic, Jewish and Lutheran clergymen teamed in 1996 to create what is now a network of 20 congregation-based shelters, linked by the group’s downtown day center bordering the campus of Las Vegas Academy.

Four to five families a month (‘family’ is liberally interpreted, but children must be involved) are shuttled to the shelters overnight, then back in the morning for job or life-skills training.

“That overnight sheltering system is an in-kind donation to our community of about $323,000 every year,” she says. “I don’t have to go to the government and say, ‘Will you give me $300,000 to run a shelter?’ The congregations are doing that, and we train them.”

Family Promise gave up its Housing and Urban Development grant to focus on its specific mission, leaving the larger shelters to meet HUD requirements to first serve the chronic homeless.

Review-Journal: It seems like people get discouraged, or what they call “compassion fatigue,” from homelessness because there seems no end to it, with so much of it pinned to drug or mental issues that have no quick solution. But your organization seems to have real specific, short-term goals.

Lindemann: We can get them on their feet. It’s almost like we’re a prep school. We’re prepping the family to get out there and be successful. Let’s help them develop a plan so they can go out and get a job, get back to work.

Our biggest challenge is we can only help four to five families at a time. Hopefully we get them on their feet within 45 days and then we bring more in.

We really can’t accept someone with drug and alcohol abuse issues at this time. I have four other families with children here, and I’m sheltering them with congregations, and their volunteers need to feel safe.

Review-Journal: If not drugs or alcohol, then what’s the most common problem?

Lindemann: The key to getting families back on their feet again is employment. Adults want to work. So employment is key, and also having a wide variety of affordable housing for unique and different circumstances.

And case management is incredibly important when we’re trying to help families get back on their feet again. We want to identify what didn’t work well last time, so that won’t repeat itself.

Review-Journal: Can you give some examples?

Lindemann: I’ve got a mom here now that was referred by the school district. She got evicted, couldn’t pay her car insurance. She couldn’t register her car, then she got a ticket. Now she’s already in trouble. We’re going to pay her car insurance this month and pay to have her car registered. We’re going to get her legal, then we’re going to move her forward.

For someone else it might be pay for two weeks of child care, so Dad can go to work. We want to use our dollars to address what got you into this mess, then let’s move you forward with no problems.

Not to make it that simple, but that’s a lot of what we do: “Show me your budget. How did you end up like this? Why did you lose your apartment?” A lot of our families weren’t taught how to manage money by their family.

Review-Journal: I met you when the “Phantom” cast started doing all these benefits for you, thanks to (cast member) Bruce Ewing, so I know you won’t have any problem filling your entertainment stage at the Family Day. What was it like to be kind of adopted by one of the biggest shows on the Strip?

Lindemann: The entertainment community here, so many of them want to give with their talent. (The cast) came down here, they saw what we did and then they put their hearts and souls into it. During their whole time (the show was at The Venetian), their cast members, after performing at night would come down and answer phones. When we moved, one of them drove our moving truck.

Review-Journal: Does it oversimplify things to say you were destined for this job because of your own background?

Lindemann: I don’t want to get religious on anybody, but I do believe that when we’re born there’s a path for us. This was my path, and everything I experienced was just preparing me so I could come now and do this work.

I actually brought a business twist here when I came on in 2004. I brought the compassion of a social worker, but I brought the business savvy that combined it together.

Review-Journal: How old were you when you knew you were going to have a normal life and be OK?

Lindemann: When I was 18. I targeted Sears & Roebuck. Within eight years I went from the phone center to the executive assistant to advertising for all of Southern California. Being an overachiever is very common among children who grew up in foster care or distressed home situations. Social workers will tell you that.

When people would get angry with me, they’d say, ‘You’re going to grow up to be just like your parents.’ And my little voice in my head would say, ‘I will show you.’

But I never regret my childhood. It prepared me to understand the circumstances of these families. If there had been a Family Promise when I was a little girl, maybe my family wouldn’t have broken apart.

Read more from Mike Weatherford at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com and follow @Mikeweatherford on Twitter.

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