Descend the ground floor steps of Fountain of Salvation Church’s unassuming side entrance on Jersey City’s Pine Street — the parish sublets a portion of its basement to recently launched Family Promise of Hudson County (FPHC) — and you’ll encounter a cozy universe adorned with handmade signs bearing inspirational quotes (“It always seems impossible until it’s done”), along with several neatly organized staging areas. Children’s books are grouped with educational toys and board games; breakfast cereals and canned goods with the microwave and minifridge; a desktop computer with a printer and portable phone; diapers and wipes with baby formula and lotion — all what volunteer Executive Director Tiffany Kane called “human needs.”
For the four homeless families currently enrolled in the FPHC program, which is a local affiliate of the national nonprofit, this place is their temporary universe. Known as the Day Center, the Pine Street site is a daily residence where participants can take showers, prepare meals, store personal items, and spend downtime throughout the day. Because the Family Promise model does not call for an overnight shelter facility but instead relies on a cluster of local interfaith congregations to rotate the responsibilities of hosting folks overnight, the Day Center provides continuity for homeless parents and children at a time when a stable operating base is urgently needed.
Four moms with seven kids aged 1-12 comprise the current batch of clients, but Kane confirmed that families with dads, grandparents, and same-sex couples are all welcome. For safety’s sake, domestic violence shelters do not usually allow fathers to stay with families, and others may place checks on who qualifies as a primary caretaker. But as long as everyone is safe — this includes a policy barring active substance abuse — Kane said there are no such restrictions. “If the grandma is the parent, then that’s the family,” Kane said.
In addition, the FPHC model is designed to keep the number of clients low, in order to provide meaningful services and increase the probability of success. The exact number “comes down to how many seats are in the van,” Kane said. FPHC contracts with a local company to provide transportation services; its vans seat 14.
The official ribbon-cutting for Family Promise of Hudson County took place back in February, but the project has been in the works for a few years. Kane described the long process of assembling “all the pieces of the puzzle” — county and municipal buy-in, congregation recruitment, start-up funding — with a mixture of pride and exhaustion. She is also a full-time teacher at P.S. 16 and has been working doggedly alongside a crew of local stakeholders to help get FPHC off the ground.
When she’s not teaching, Kane works out of a small administrative office adjacent to the cozy room on Pine Street. She is a parishioner at Saint Ann in Hoboken; it was through her church that she first heard about the county’s Family Promise efforts and decided to become involved, eventually stepping into the executive director position. Neither she nor the two case managers currently working at FPHC are paid; the agency is working to secure funding for the positions. Her goal is to have a full-time, paid director in place by the fall. (Kane will continue to help out as an advisory presence.)
As for her current role, “I try to be available and around as much as possible,” Kane said. Her teaching background informs much of how FPHC operates, from the well-oiled operations to the focus on consistency and communalism. “The idea is that by helping families experience a sense of community, we can support a pathway to housing stability.“
Kane is also committed to respecting clients’ privacy: the Jersey Digs visit was intentionally scheduled when the Center was empty of people, so that none of the families would feel compelled to put their lives on display.
Each evening at 7 p.m., families gather at the Day Center for transportation to the overnight host site. The congregations design their temporary “shelters” with air mattresses and room dividers belonging to FPHC; each family has its own sleeping nook cordoned off with dividers. Congregations recruit volunteers to cook and share meals with the families and to staff overnight shifts. Volunteers are asked to be warm and welcoming, and above all, not to judge.
In the morning, the van arrives at 6:30; families have the option of riding to the Day Center, or they may arrange for their own transportation to bring kids to school and daycare (the Salvation Army on Bergen Ave. in Jersey City donates free childcare) before heading off to work. Three of the moms are currently working; the fourth family fled Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria and is navigating the resettlement process. Kane said, “It’s really hard to see parents who are working, they’re saving money and following the right steps” but with N.J. minimum wage stalled at $8.60 per hour and scanty affordable housing, making ends meet remains elusive.
Official FPHC guidelines call for a maximum stay of 30 days in the program, but the actual length of time is up to the discretion of each affiliate. In Hudson County, it can take significantly longer to make the rounds with social services and access housing vouchers that help defray the cost of rent. FPHC says it will stick with its families until they move into permanent housing.
As FPHC continues to fight the rising tide of family homelessness, Kane called on the community to pitch in. The organization is in need of material goods, monetary donations — the van service alone runs $3,000 a month — corporate partners, and volunteers. Progress may seem incremental, but it’s working: FPHC recently celebrated its first success in helping a family find permanent housing.
And thanks to the emphasis on hospitality, small joys are possible. “The kids have become really close with one another,” Kane said. Recently at the Day Center, one of the current families arrived in the afternoon during a play session already in progress. “One of the little girls ran over to her friend and said, ‘You’re here! You’re here!’”