Susan Campbell: Giving Homeless Families A Place To Be, Hope

The night before, water gushed into the basement of the old house, and now, mid-day the next day, there's the sound of a fountain in the kitchen.

Kara Molway Russell, who is standing nearby, says quickly, "That can't be awesome," and she rushes down to the basement, where Scott Engel, a local plumber, is trying to make magic with 50-year-old pipes.

And then Russell and Ed Liedke, drop to their hands and knees to mop up.

It's that kind of day at Family Promise of Central Connecticut, a New Britain day care center for families who are homeless — but then, it is often that kind of day. Things go awry, someone grabs a paper towel, replaces a part, cleans up the mess and the world keeps turning.

The organization offers multiple services for families experiencing homelessness, including providing a place to be during the day, and, by forming partnerships with area faith communities, temporary bedrooms in church basements and classrooms at night. For as long as the families need it, they rotate among 10 churches whose members have volunteered to host the families a week at a time. Meanwhile, a case manager provides needed services to get the adults employed, and the adults and children housed.

Family homelessness feels like the last frontier in a state that has set the unprecedented standard for making the incidence of homelessness rare, and non-recurring. Last January, the state announced that it had matched every person who is chronically homeless — the persistent, years long kind — to housing. The February before that, the state announced that it had effectively ended homelessness among veterans.

Homelessness among families seems complicated by the various needs of the members, though research shows that families that are homeless often don't need a lot of help getting back up.

Last year's Point In Time annual homeless census found 392 families — or 1,180 people — in the state, a decrease of 13 percent from the year before. Connecticut will conduct this year's Point In Time count on Tuesday.

Family Promise serves 15 people at a time, in families that are defined by how the children define their families. That can be two mommies, a stepparent, a cousin. At the day center, the families are given their own closets, and chores. On deluge day, the chore chart shows that a mother named Valerie is assigned to clean the kitchen floor — which means, jokes Russell, that Valerie has that chore already taken care of, what with the rolls of paper towels stuffed into the kitchen trash can.

Russell is the assistant to the pastor for youth and outreach at Church of Christ, Congregational, in Newington. She started the Family Promise program after meeting with a college friend who was volunteering for a Boston affiliate. The doors opened last March.

It is an endeavor of constant challenges, mitigated by families finding homes. Funding is always an issue. They're in the market for a permanent director, and they could use a few more faith groups to add to the 10 that already volunteer to house the families, but this is not strictly a religious organization. Its 200 volunteers — who provide evening meals, homework help, whatever is needed — come from across the religious landscape, but include more than a few atheists and agnostics.

Liedke, who is vice president of Family Promise's board, got involved in part because his wife, Cheryl, has taught for decades in the New Britain school system. Over the years, they've had many conversations around the kitchen table about the challenges for a 6-year-old keeping up with schoolwork while worrying about where she'll sleep at night.

While the plumber worked his magic, the three families who are currently guests of Family Promise spent the day at Berlin Congregational Church, their evening hosts for the week. It was a blessing, said Russell, that the leaks came on Martin Luther King Day, when transportation to school wasn't an issue. And Engel had the water on again later that day.

Volunteers have a way of looking at glasses half full at Family Promise, where they remind themselves that flexibility is key. In fact, after the kitchen floor was dry, Russell and Liedke joked about having the word "flexibility" tattooed on their arms — though it would have to be temporary. Even tattoos have to be, well, flexible here.

Susan Campbell teaches at the University of New Haven. She is the author of "Dating Jesus: Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl" and "Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker." Her email address is

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