Lily Schmidt will spend her first Christmas at First Christian Church downtown, and not just for the Christmas Eve service.

Lily, a happy, 2-month-old with wisps of light brown hair, will be staying at the church all night, all day and the rest of the week. She and her brother Tristin, 4, and parents Margaret and Tylor Schmidt, are among four homeless families who are guests of the church. First Christian is one of 26 Billings faith congregations that take turns hosting homeless families 365 nights a year. The emergency shelter in churches is just one service of Family Promise of Yellowstone Valley, formerly known as the Interfaith Hospitality Network.

Margaret Schmidt said her family moved to Billings this spring after a couple of years of couch-hopping in California where the economy is so bad she and her husband couldn't find jobs. They moved in with her mother in Billings, but the apartment management threatened to evict them all from the tiny studio apartment because there were too many people.

Mrs. Schmidt asked her baby doctor for help and received a referral to a case manager at RiverStone Health, who put her in touch with Family Promise. She and her husband are working opposite shifts so they don't have to pay for child care. She has applied for Best Beginnings scholarships that would pay part of the child care costs so she can work longer hours. Tristin, who dotes on his baby sister, is autistic and is receiving therapy as well as attending Head Start.

Brunch with pastor

Over at First Christian Church, the families will wake up Christmas morning with decorated trees in their rooms, said Susan Bruner, church secretary and Family Promise coordinator. Pastor Jeromy Emerling and his family plan to cook a big brunch for the guests. Later in the day, another family in the congregation will prepare a holiday feast.

Christmas is an extra-special day for the Family Promise participants. Usually, they have to be up and dressed for the day by 6 a.m., except for Saturdays.

Randy Fisher has to be at his warehouse job at 6 a.m. Family Promise takes him to work and his children, Bobbie Jo and Taesean, to day care before school. After work, the single dad attends chemical dependency treatment at Rimrock. Sometimes, he is taking a cab to get his children back to the church at 9:30 p.m.

It's been a tough schedule, Fisher said. But he has maintained sobriety for more than 10 months and is making good progress in the drug treatment court in which District Judge Ingrid Gustafson presides.

Single dad recovers sobriety

"It's really saved my life," Fisher said of drug court.

He is grateful for Family Promise.

"I got myself into kind of a deep hole before we came in," he said. "It's kind of like having a parent. They nurtured me and took care of me until I could stand on my own."

After sleeping in churches for the past year, Fisher looks forward to giving his children their own rooms. By the end of this week, the Fisher family expects to move into one of four transitional apartments operated by Family Promise. Families pay rent and have the opportunity to build up a good credit history, so they can eventually rent in the community market.

In addition to emergency shelter in churches and four transitional apartments, Family Promise serves more than 30 families with case management, basically helping them find the things they need to overcome obstacles and take care of their kids, said executive director Lisa Donnot. The program runs on a small budget and relies on about 50 volunteers to help each week.

On this day when Christians reread the story of a homeless baby born in a stable because there was no room at the inn, think about your community today. There are poor, homeless and displaced families in Billings, throughout Montana and across our country. But they need not be alone or homeless for long. We can make room, we can share as dozens of congregations and an army of volunteers are doing in Family Promise.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.