NEWPORT, Ky. – The Strait family believes that family is everything and that sticking together is the key to survival -- especially when you’re homeless.
“That’s the time families need to be together not torn apart,” Denise Strait said, sitting in her living room amidst the numerous framed family photos, once boxed and collecting dust in storage, are nailed to the wall of their two-bedroom apartment in Elsmere.
The Strait family is one of hundreds, who over the past two decades, have turned to the family-friendly homeless shelter, Family Promise of Northern Kentucky in their time of need.
But on July 1, Family Promise will close its doors, pushing families like the Straits back to the streets or into other area shelters, but separated.
“It is purely the inability to sustain a consistent level of financial support necessary to continue operations,” Jeff Poland, Family Promise’s executive director said about the shelter’s demise.
Families Who Are Housed Together, Stay Together
“So much unknown, a path we’d never taken before,” Denise said about becoming homeless for the first time during her 28-year marriage.
“It’s not just the addicts or the woman pushing the grocery cart,” she said of those who find themselves on the streets. “It’s families with teenagers, children, grandparents.”
Denise, 51, her husband Randy and teenage daughter Emily, found themselves jobless, carless and homeless in a matter of one week.
“You never know when it’s going to be you,” Denise said, who has a plaque tacked to her wall that says: When life gets too hard to stand… kneel'.
After Randy was laid off from his job in January 2013, the family’s only car broke down for the third time. They were a little shy on rent and were swiftly booted to the street by their building’s new, unforgiving landlord, Denise remembered.
“You can be one or two paychecks, or six months away,” Randy, who is plagued with diabetes, arthritis and dysthymia manic depression, said.
When they left their home they had zero dollars to their name, Denise said, holding up her hand to form an ‘O’.
After calling around looking for a place where they all could stay, Denise and their then-15-year-old sophomore in high school, Emily, were told to go to the Welcome House, in Covington, which serves up to 30 residents at a time, however, only allows mothers and children, no fathers.
Randy, 53, was forced to leave his family behind and sleep at the Emergency Cold Shelter of Northern Kentucky in Covington—which is now also closing its doors in the near future to find a new location.
“I’ve never been away from my family,” Randy said. “I felt alone, hopeless and useless.”
Denise and Emily spent their nights at the Welcome House for about two weeks, waiting for a spot to open at Family Promise for all three of them.
“It was a sad time. If we hadn’t had them, I don’t know what we would’ve done,” Denise said about finally getting into Family Promise in early February 2013.
On average, Family Promise, which is the only emergency shelter in Kentucky that keeps the entire family together while homeless, has helped 25 families a year with shelter and housing programs. In 2012, they assisted 24 families, which included 73 family members; 46 of those children like Emily.
The family spent their days at Family Promise and their nights in churches throughout Northern Kentucky within the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Northern Kentucky.
Emily, now 17, who’s heading into her senior year with her eye on art school after graduation, managed to keep her grades above a 3.0 GPA, despite having a learning disability.
“It was the only stability in her life,” her mom said.
“That school felt more at home than the shelter, being other kids made me happy,” Emily said about attending Dixie Heights High School. She had to take three buses from the shelter to get to school every day, until she switched to Newport High School, which was a 20-block walk each way.
Having her family by her side was important.
“When you’re homeless you need your family,” Emily said. And even though “life sucks, you’ve got to keep walking. Gotta keep walkin’, it’s all we did.”
Until the soles of her shoes worn thin, Emily kept walking, and never gave up. They attribute their experience with Family Promise for that glimmer of hope that they always kept tucked in their back pocket.
“They helped us spiritually and mentally,” Denise said of Family Promise.
The center’s social worker Jodi Penick helped the family apply for food stamps, a first for them, as well as apply for unemployment and seek free food and clothes at other locations like the Brighton Center and Hosea House.
On any given day at Family Promise, Denise said she was looking for jobs, setting up interviews, filling out paperwork, and on the search for more shoes… to keep walking.
After nearly three months of not having a place to call their own, on March 25, 2013, the family graduated from Family Promise and moved into their current home.
“I call them the ‘second-chance people’,” Denise said.
Closing Shelter Doors, Families Ripped Apart
“They’ll split up, that’s what usually happens,” Denise said about families who become homeless and are not permitted to stay in the same shelter together.
There were 5,245 homeless, including 513 youth, counted in Kentucky in 2013, like the Straits, who slept at night in churches throughout the Northern Kentucky region as part of the Family Promise program.
In Northern Kentucky, the homeless count for 2013 was:
• Boone County- 24
• Kenton County- 255
• Campbell County- 124
But Family Promise will no longer be the shelter for those 403 homeless to turn to in Northern Kentucky.
“It is with great sadness that after 20 years we have determined to suspend shelter operations indefinitely,” Brenda Pair, board president and Jeff Poland, interim executive director wrote in a letter on their website.
After opening its doors in 1994, as part of the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Northern Kentucky, with the mission to help families stay together and get them back on their feet with meals, shelter and support, they have to call it quits due to inadequate funding.
“The 20 years has certainly had its ups and downs and as many of you know we have struggled over the years to maintain adequate financing to continue operating the day center, case management and transportation,” the letter read.
The Bank of Kentucky, the program’s largest contributor, gave Family Promise $30,000 this year, which was part of 2013’s total finances labeled as public support and revenues: $325,433 from an array of sources, below, as well as through grants and fundraisers like Homeless to Hopeful and a wine tasting. That’s up from 2012’s $276,957, according to Family Promise's financial statement.
Poland warned, however to be careful making any conclusions from the surface numbers, as non-profit accounting is not that straight forward.
Noting that there were certain revenue amounts that were restricted for a particular use.
"Cash is king in any business, and particularly true for non-profits," Poland said, noting that there were no cash reserves and not enough unrestricted cash available for normal operating expenses.
Boone County Fiscal Court
Campbell County Fiscal Court
Kenton County Fiscal Court
The Robert M. Butler Memorial Foundation
The R.C. Durr Foundation
GE Evandale Community Services Fund
The Greater Cincinnati Foundation
The Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati
The Andrew Jergens Foundation
The Johnson Family Foundation
The Helen Steiner Rice Foundation
The Scripps Howard Foundation
The Charles and Ruth Seligman Foundation
The Spaulding Foundation
The Toyota (TEMA) Foundation
The Bank of Kentucky
Chick-fil-a Restaurant - Florence, KY
Erlanger United Methodist Women's Group
Ft. Thomas Woman's Club
Ft. Wright Civic Club
Heritage Barber Shop
Kenton County Rotary Club
Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, LLP
TiER1 Performance Solutions, Inc.
Victory Community Bank
On average, the program, which consists of the emergency shelter and rapid re-housing for families, costs $49.59 a day—most families stay 58 days.
In 2013, according to Family Promise’s financial statement, its total expenses were $296,405, down from 2012’s total of $300,780.
But with more expenses than unrestricted funds for operating the shelter and about 800 volunteers throughout the program, including nearly two dozen churches that assist in its mission, it just wasn’t enough to keep the program afloat, Poland said.
As a result on May 5, Family Promise sent out the following letter to all church pastors who were part of the network.
We are thankful for the long service of our host and support churches. We are thankful for the coordinators and volunteers who serve at each rotation. Many of you have been faithful from the beginning in 1994 when this ministry started, as Interfaith Hospitality Network and you have been servants to others.
The 20 years has certainly had its ups and downs as all of you know, and as many of you have experienced. We have struggled over the years to maintain adequate financing to continue operating the day center, case management and transportation. This lack of sustainability has reached a critical stage and we have determined that the best option is to suspend shelter operations effective May 5, 2014. We have two families in transitional housing and that ministry will continue for the next 60-90 days.
It is our hope that services to Northern Kentucky families will continue in the future. Since last fall we have been in discussions with our sister affiliate, Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati (IHNGC), about how to better utilize our combined resources, facilities, churches and volunteers. There are many elements of planning any potential transition and we are working closely with the leadership of IHNGC to give careful consideration to the best path forward.
We are committed, as you and your church are, to being good stewards of the resources provided by our community and providing these services in this manner is good stewardship.
We trust and know that you will continue to be a part of this important ministry serving homeless families.
Community Could Help
Now with a home of her very own, full of patriotic knick knacks and blessing plaques adorning her walls, Denise hopes that the community will rally together and give however they can, so that Family Promise may continue to change families’ lives, like they did for hers.
“You’re helping us, people like us,” she pleaded to the community. “Some day it could be them. Pay it forward now. If you’ve got [money] use it wisely. If you don’t, volunteer.”
“They helped us in so many ways. The place is a blessing,” Denise, who is now a full-time student and starting a new job next month, said.
Randy also has a full-time job. And Emily has her own room, splashed with purple, her favorite color and plastered with drawings and artwork that she has created.
“There are a lot of people who want to help. You have to look. You have to ask,” she said. “I learned that we can be self-reliant but also that you can’t do it alone and faith has a lot to do with it.”
“It's devastating to hear that we are closing. We're the only family shelter in Northern Kentucky. Being homeless disrupts every aspect of family life. My heart reaches out to the community and those in need,” Penick, who helped the Strait family and whose last day is June 30, said.
Since last fall, Poland said, Family Promise has been in discussions with its affiliate Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati (IHNGC), about how to better utilize their combined resources, facilities, churches and volunteers—although currently, Family Promise is selling off its furniture and supplies.
After meeting with the IHNGC board, Poland said, they approved to take the steps to determine if and when they could accommodate a few Northern Kentucky families in its churches.
“There are a number of support groups critical to this decision and I know they have already been meeting with those partners to determine the level of commitment and support,” Poland said.
“I don’t want the shelter to close,” Denise said. “I know other families who could use Family Promise. Where am I suppose to send them now?”