Denise Martino, Family Promise’s newest case manager, says her introduction to social services began a quarter century ago with her first job out of school — answering calls on a 24-hour crisis hotline for Covenant House in New York City.
She heard of almost every human problem – suicide, psychosis, addiction, homelessness, domestic abuse. She learned on the job how to analyze, to reassure, to refer, to advise.
Above all, she learned to listen.
Today, she’s still listening, as she works with clients and potential clients of Family Promise of Bergen County, an organization focused on helping homeless working families with children to find shelter and to become self-sufficient.
“That experience at Covenant House literally was the foundation of my ability to work with people, and to help them,’’ she says today.
Denise was born in the Bronx to parents with roots in Puerto Rico (her father) and the Dominican Republic (her mother); she was raised in Queens. After six years with Covenant House, she moved to a social services agency in Indiana, working face to face with clients, especially abused children, kids in foster care and foster families.
A decade ago she and her immediate family (her husband and two kids, who are now 13 and 16) moved back east to Bergen County to be closer to relatives in the New York metropolitan area. When she was looking for jobs in this area, she says, she was attracted by Family Promise’s mission statement: “Empower homeless working families to become self-sufficient by providing temporary housing and personalized support.’’
The first word caught her eye. At Family Promise, “we provide wrap-around services, like workshops on job search and personal finances,’’ she says. “Our goal is not just to stabilize a family’s situation, but to help them become independent.’’ Not all social service agencies, she adds, follow such a philosophy; as a result, “families can get stuck in a mindset of being dependent on the government.’’
One of the best things about working at Family Promise, she adds, is that its families “want to break that cycle of dependency.’’
In her job, Denise spends a lot of time on the phone, listening and helping. Since April, she’s approved the distribution of $140,000 for homeless prevention and rental assistance — funds that FP executive director Kate Duggan says kept 34 families from being evicted.
Denise also screens calls. As COVID-related government rental relief has wound down, callers are increasingly desperate over late rent fees of hundreds of dollars, or big rent increases, or the simple lack of money for a security deposit. Some are on the verge of eviction, occasionally because they mistakenly thought they were approved for state assistance.
Sometimes, Denise can refer a caller to other sources of assistance. Sometimes, she can do no more – or less – than listen: “There’s no time limit on the call. Sometimes, people thank me just for returning their call.’’
At times it can feel, she says, like she’s back on the Covenant House hotline — “back to my crisis intervention days.’’