Raphael House of San Francisco: A Shelter for Homeless Families

By Fr. David Lowell


More than 30 years ago, long before homelessness was a national issue, Raphael House began serving women and children who were temporarily homeless. In 1977, we expanded our facilities so we could host intact families with fathers as well.

Raphael House was started by Christ the Saviour Brotherhood in 1971. In 1990 they asked Raphael House to incorporate separately and form a lay Board of Directors which we did in 1991. Live-in staff now come from Orthodox parishes at large and are asked to be active in a local parish. In November 2000, the Chapel at Raphael House became an OCA chapel attached to Holy Trinity Cathedral here in San Francisco.

In 1991 we also began hiring additional staff who do not live at Raphael House. These hardworking, talented staff members are essential in carrying out our full range of services for our families. Over the past decade, we have averaged 46 employees, full and part time, at Raphael House.

Mission and Program

Our shelter has 17 bedrooms for families. Our After Care Program serves 788 former residents who are now successfully housed.

In addition to filling the most basic needs for food, shelter, and clothing, Raphael House provides a home-like atmosphere of love, care, and security in which families can rebuild their lives.

The mission of Raphael House is to help homeless families achieve stable housing and financial independence while strengthening family bonds. To achieve this goal, Raphael House offers a comprehensive array of support services for residents including case management, advocacy, job counseling, life skills training in areas such as parenting and budgeting, housing assistance, child care, and an integrated children’s program that provides structured educational and recreational activities.

There are four key components to the Raphael House program:

  • The residential program allows families to stay with us for up to six months.
  • The combined casework, counseling, and education components help families define goals and receive training on how to reach those goals.
  • Our children’s program delivers a strong, daily structure that fosters creativity and imagination through art, stories, games and dance.
  • Our After Care program provides systematic follow-up support to former resident families, including social, educational, and cultural events and activities.

While at Raphael House, each family is provided with a room or set of rooms as their home for the duration of their stay. Each family contributes to the community by helping with household tasks like washing dishes and making lunches. Children receive tutoring, lots of supervised activities, and a structured daily routine. To encourage and educate families on the rigors of money management, parents working outside the shelter turn 80% of each paycheck over to Raphael House for investing in a savings account. The account is turned over in full to the families as they depart, usually serving as a security deposit and rent when they find a place to live.

Financial Support

Raphael House doesn’t take government money. This is partly because we have an Orthodox religious community and chapel on the premises, though that in itself wouldn’t preclude government support. The primary reason we are free of tax dollars is our longstanding belief that we can run a stricter program if we are privately funded.

Individual donors, foundations, corporations, special events, and revenue from our Thrift Store are the sources for our 1.9 million dollar operating budget each year.

Large Volunteer Base

Individual volunteers as well as corporate and church groups participate in virtually every aspect of our work at Raphael House – from tutoring children, to cooking dinner, to serving on the Board of Directors. Last year volunteers contributed over 13,000 hours of service. In addition, to 60 weekly volunteers, there are 1,200 volunteers who help with meal preparation, holidays, and special occasions. Volunteer chefs cook and serve more than 6,000 meals through our Corporate Chef program. A full time Volunteer Coordinator recruits, orients and schedules our volunteers.

Live-in Community

There are 12 full time staff who live at Raphael House – all Orthodox Christians. In addition we usually have several live-in volunteers who will stay three to nine months, living and working at Raphael House. We also have five children among the staff families.

At Raphael House I serve in many capacities. I am the Executive Director. I am the Priest in charge. I am a parent who has raised his family at Raphael House for the past 16 years. And – not as insignificant a role as it may sound – I am a regular member of the dish team three nights a week. This last point is very important because Raphael House is a working household. While we have many “outside” staff (some Orthodox, some not) who also participate strongly in the daily life at Raphael House, it is the live-in community who ensure that the stability of this household is a continuous, uninterrupted reality.

Live-in staff are not entirely OCA. We have several native born Russians on our staff who are members of the Moscow Patriarchate Church, and one life-long Antiochian. In addition to occasional mid-week liturgies at Raphael House, I am attached and serve regularly at Holy Trinity Cathedral with the Rector, the Archpriest Victor Sokolov. The church is within easy walking distance.

Residential Internships for Orthodox Women

Raphael House of San Francisco offers residential internships for Orthodox Christian women who are interested in learning more about serving families in crisis. The live-in staff have one floor of the shelter, so we do have some privacy. Space is limited, however, which is why we usually only accept women. Over the past decade we have had 57 live-in volunteers who came for internships as short as six weeks or for as long as one year. Some students arrange in advance to have their internship approved for credit as part of graduate or undergraduate course work. Non-academic internships are sometimes of interest to women who are changing their academic or career path. More simply still, learning to serve families in crisis at Raphael House is the way some of us feel called by God to serve others. It may have nothing whatsoever to do with academia or a lucrative career path.

Our live-in Volunteer Coordinator is Randa Aoun, a graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

International Internships

We frequently host international visitors who are interested in non-profit administration – generally from Russia, 2 or 3 at a time, in cooperation with the Fund for International Non-Profit Development. These mature visitors are struggling to build a new volunteer service sector in Russia under very difficult conditions. While these brief internships have been sponsored by secular agencies, we hope to have more interns who come to us directly through relationships within the Church.

The Church and the World

We have prayers in the Chapel. We process on Theophany or Mid-Pentecost, blessing the House with Holy Water. The live-in staff have ongoing studies. Skilled cooks prepare traditional meals for residents, as well as vegetarian meals for the Orthodox live-in staff every Wednesday and Friday, and during the fast periods. Raphael House is not our Church – we all belong to and serve in other local parishes - but the life of the Church is visible and tangible at Raphael House.

Raphael House is also very much in the world. We attempt to operate by “best practices” in non-profit management. We fingerprint all employees and volunteers. We work closely with all social service agencies. We raise money. A wide array of volunteers, corporations, and donors of all kinds participate in our work. Raphael House’s ministry is very much in the secular world.

No religious obligations are placed on the families who come to us. Most families are not Orthodox. We absolutely do not proselytize in any way. People of no or unknown faith are comfortable here. Our kitchen always accommodates practicing Jews or Muslims with dietary restrictions. Our mission is to serve. Our witness is in doing it well.

An Extended Social Network

Our antidote for families in crisis is that Raphael House is not in crisis. Not only does this help a new family feel safe and able to re-order their lives, it also makes it possible to build neighborly relationships that may last for years.

Former residents come back for picnics, award dinners, children’s events and cultural outings. We generally have 180 people at our Fourth of July picnic in Golden Gate Park. Over the years we’ve seen many children grow up. (We have staff and volunteers who stayed at Raphael House when they were children.) Our After Care program is intended to be social and educational – fun, actually – rather than overtly charitable. We do lots of charitable support for families after they leave Raphael House (food, clothing, advocacy), but we do it privately. When we come together for an event, our focus is on having a good (clean and sober) time together. I have met degreed social workers, who don’t consider social events to be social “work.” Our philosophy is the opposite of that way of thinking. If you are missing the therapeutic importance of food, manners and ongoing relationship, you’re missing it all. Helping out with cleaning, dishes, sometimes with the cooking is also healthy and normal. Families who participate in Raphael House activities have to have the opportunity to give, not just to receive.

If we treat a family only as a charity case, they won’t stay involved. Some families don’t need or want an ongoing social network through Raphael House. We know, however, that those families who actively participate in our follow-up activities do remain housed and their children generally do better at school than they were doing before they came to Raphael House.

Is the Raphael House model replicable?

Clearly the “model” we follow is not new. It is, however, difficult to replicate in 21st Century America. Government funding has largely replaced religious based live-in residential programs, which were once so common.

While a core of our live-in staff in San Francisco have been at Raphael House for one or two decades, there have been many hundreds of live-in staff who have devoted time to Raphael House before moving on to their permanent life’s work. Without a steady flow of residential interns, there is no way to renew the live-in staff. A single parish can’t supply those staff, though a very small residential program is occasionally possible when competent, committed leadership resides on the premises.

While our focus is homeless families, the principles in our program can be applied elsewhere for other populations. This is the model in a nutshell:

  1. A working household (live-in staff; everyone helps out)
  2. Live-in staff with a prayer and sacramental life centered in the Church
  3. A total environment – attractive, orderly and dignified. Those who serve and those who are being served feel uplifted
  4. A narrowly conceived program for a very specific population
  5. Clear boundaries, rules, expectations
  6. Appropriate expertise for the services rendered (Good intentions are not enough).
  7. A vision for a broad base of support
  8. Good governance:
    • Committed leader with a vision
    • Zeal for fiduciary and legal accountability
    • A Board which focuses on policy and direction, not day-to-day management

Weakness in any one of these areas will cause problems. Terrible service projects result when the principles of this model are reversed. Here is your service nightmare checklist:

  • Live-in staff who are themselves charity cases
  • Staff who see their service ministry as an alternative to life in the Church.
  • Junky environment (opportunistic and random acquisition of donations; an anything-is-better-than-nothing mentality)
  • Broadly conceived service open to anyone
  • No clear boundaries, guidelines, expectations for those served
  • Lack of expertise or training
  • Ingrown vision that clings to the smallest base of support
  • Committee-style governance without a leader, without formalized oversight and without real accountability

The staff at Raphael House are very happy to talk with you about any questions or ideas you may have. To learn more about Raphael House of San Francisco, online, go to [url=http://www.raphaelhouse.org]http://www.raphaelhouse.org[/url]. To learn more about our internship programs, contact Randa Aoun. To talk more about programs and non-profit management issues, feel free to call me (or anyone at Raphael House) at 415-474-4621. When you are in San Francisco, please come by for a tour. We will be happy to show you around.

Fr. David Lowell is Executive Directory of Raphael House. As an OCA priest, he is attached to and serves at Holy Trinity Cathedral, San Francisco, California.

Taken from the OCA Resource Handbook for Lay Ministries