Kenneth Husbands doesn’t want to talk about what brought him here.
But whatever crisis triggered his homelessness seems far from the minds of his three kids as they move into temporary digs at Wasatch Presbyterian.
“Smells good, I’m hungry,” 10-year-old Kadeam says on a tour of the kitchen where volunteers prepare pasta and chili. The trio then spots the gymnasium and, with a “woohoo,” race off.
The congregation is among 10 in the Salt Lake Valley that have opened their doors to families in need in partnership with Family Promise of Salt Lake, the local arm of a national nonprofit. The program fills a niche, providing first-time homeless families food and amenities not available at shelters: A gym, a library and brightly decorated private rooms.
Multi-generational and nontraditional families, such as young moms with boyfriends who normally would be split up at a shelter, are welcome. Substance abuse is forbidden and enforced with drug and alcohol testing.
“We want this to be a safe, quiet, more intimate experience for the kids,” said Tony Milner, interim director of Family Promise of Salt Lake. “Their lives have been turned upside down and we want them to be as comfortable as possible.”
But like all housing programs, Family Promise is feeling the brunt of the economy downturn.
This year, an estimated 13,378 school children were homeless — up 67 percent from 2008, according to the state’s official count.
Although foreclosures are slowing, Milner said, “the waiting list is still growing. It used to be we’d get four or five calls a day. Now it’s more like 10 or 15.”
With churches picking up fixed costs — some like Wasatch Presbyterian have even remodeled with an eye toward taking in more families — the 16-year-old program is getting good results.
“Last year we served 40 families and 125 individuals,” Milner said. “Other affiliates our size serve half that.”
The goal is to get families stable and permanently housed in a month. Nationally, the average length-of-stay for families is 65 days. In Utah, it’s 35 days.
Milner credits the interdenominational camaraderie of volunteers and, ironically, Utah’s landlord-friendly laws.
“It makes it easier to find a place to rent,” he said. “In places like Boston where there are lots of laws protecting renters, it’s harder to evict someone, so landlords are more scrupulous about credit and background checks.”
Not all denominations participate. Some — such as the LDS Church, which bans overnight activities — contribute cash and personnel.
There is no proselytizing in the program; just a daily blessing at dinner.
“We’re mostly Protestant-based,” said Milner, who would like to involve other faiths. “Daily, we turn away parents and children who will end up sleeping in cars, or tents, or unsafe conditions because we have no space for them.”
The Husbands — Kenneth, his twin sons Kadeam and Andrew, and 8-year-old daughter Kendal — will spend a week at Wasatch, then rotate through other churches until they find an apartment, subsidized housing or another living situation.
“We host one week a quarter,” said David Harris, a pediatrician volunteer for at least seven years. “It’s the right thing to do and it’s fun.”
Families wake early. The kids are taken to school. And the parents are paired with case managers who help them spruce up their resumés, search for jobs and apply for aid programs.
“They’re pretty much there for anything you need,” said Mikala Manzanares, a 17-year-old who has participated in the program.
Manzanares, a single mom bent on getting her diploma and applying for nursing school, has traveled a tough road. Before the holidays, her mother and sole supporter, Jennipher Best, was laid off. Unable to pay the rent, the family of four was evicted from their Salt Lake City apartment.
“People don’t realize you can have everything one day and lose it all the next,” said Best, who landed a marketing job with a food retailer earlier this month.
The women heard about Family Promise from a friend. Others are referred by the local shelter.
Their paths to homelessness are as varied as their ages, backgrounds and aspirations. Some are bankrupted by chronic health problems. Others are financially devastated by divorce.
“If I’m late on my rent, I have friends and families to go to,” Milner said. “The families that come through our doors are young, hard-working individuals, but don’t have those supports.”
Kandas Prasad’s only living relatives are her mother, who is in an assisted living center, and a sister who is 19 years her senior. Her sister took care of Prasad’s three children about two years ago while she was in residential treatment for a heroin addiction.
The 28-year-old Davis County woman has been off drugs ever since, but the road to financial independence is long. She has been homeless more than once; this last time due to a job loss.
“This program is a godsend,” Prasad said. “I have a lot of worries for my children. I’ve put them through so much. But I have faith we’ll overcome.”
Homeless families are finding shelter beneath the roofs of churches along the Wasatch Front. Here’s a look at the congregations who are housing those families, and those who are helping through cash and volunteers.
All Saints Episcopal Church, Salt Lake City
Bountiful Community Church, Bountiful
Christ United Methodist Church, Salt Lake City
First United Methodist Church, Salt Lake City
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Salt Lake City
Hilltop United Methodist Church, Sandy
Mt. Vista United Methodist Church, West Jordan
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, Salt Lake City
St. Catherine of Sienna Newman Center, Salt Lake City
Wasatch Presbyterian Church, Salt Lake City
Bountiful North Canyon LDS Stake, Bountiful
Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Bountiful
Mount Tabor Lutheran Church, ELCA, Salt Lake City
Centenary United Methodist Church, Salt Lake City
Congregation Kol Ami, Salt Lake City
East Millcreek LDS Stake, Salt Lake City
St. John’s Anglican Church, Park City
Trinity United Methodist Church, Kearns
Mount Olympus Presbyterian Church, Holladay
Park City Community Church, Park City
To volunteer or make donations, go to http://bit.ly/AB1y2l