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When home is a house of worship

Susan Zwart readies a room at First Congregational Church of Essex for the arrival of homeless families.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Susan Zwart readies a room at First Congregational Church of Essex for the arrival of homeless families.

Eager to put social justice teachings into action, congregations in the Beverly area are jumping at the chance to shelter homeless families in their buildings through a new program that begins Sunday.

But turning houses of worship into overnight facilities is proving to be no easy task. The faithful often find they need to invest thousands of dollars before inspectors will let them accommodate their first homeless guests.

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

Volunteer Donna Kendall (right) leads the applause at the opening of a Beverly day center for the homeless (left).

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Some congregations “have started to think, ‘Well, geez, can we do this?’ ” as they consider the costs, said Elise Sinagra, executive director of Family Promise North Shore Boston , a new nonprofit that works with faith groups to shelter families. “Then you see them come together, think creatively, dig in and say, ‘We’re going to do this.’ ”

Starting Sunday, a small number of homeless children and their parents will sleep and have meals at local churches. The initiative, for which the churches receive no compensation, replicates a Family Promise model that has operated in 41 states and helped tens of thousands of families return to stable housing. The idea is to enable families with minor children — screened to exclude those with drug abuse issues and domestic violence histories — to get back on their feet without asking too much of any one congregation.

Guests stay for a week at one church, then stay the next week at a different one. A Family Promise shuttle brings everyone each day to a hub facility on Beverly’s Rantoul Street, where buses pick up children for school in their respective districts. At the day center, which includes a laundry room and a shower, parents may work with case workers and manage their affairs via phone or computer. Family Promise then helps them find permanent housing.

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Sunday night, the program’s first families will stay at First Congregational Church of Essex , where volunteers have been transforming classrooms into temporary bedrooms. Volunteers hope pictures, lamps, and simple furnishings will make the space feel homey for guests, who will sleep on fold-up beds.

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

The Family Promise North Shore Boston's new Family Day Center in Beverly.

“It was not a battle at all to get the congregation to back this,” said Susan Zwart, the church’s volunteers coordinator. The guests “are going to be regular people: moms and dads who make minimum wage, then an extenuating circumstance happens and they’re out of a home with no place to go.”

The launch comes at a crucial time, homeless advocates say. Last August, the Department of Housing and Community Development adopted tighter criteria for those seeking emergency housing through shelters and motels. As fewer families qualify, more end up sleeping in cars or hallways if friends or relatives can’t accommodate them, according to Robyn Frost, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless .

The number of families being denied emergency shelter has increased from 49 to 54 percent since the stricter criteria took effect, according to Housing and Community Development’s undersecretary, Aaron Gornstein.

In these early days for Family Promise North Shore Boston, churches will shelter two families in buildings provided by eight host congregations. Eventually the program could shelter up to 14 individuals, Sinagra said, and include as many as 14 host congregations.

Though only a few families will take part at any given time, the impact on all involved could be profound, observers say. Gornstein said homeless families tend to do best when they have access to transportation and can keep children in stable school situations. Both are priorities of the fledgling group.

This program “is giving a child or children a place to safely lay their heads beside a parent or parents,” Frost said. “Those children are going to be less stressed, more able to go back to school, and have fewer behavioral issues than the child who is sleeping in the emergency room.’’

In the suburbs north of Boston, nine family shelters have 312 beds, but that’s not enough. With state emergency assistance, another 228 families are staying at motels in Saugus, Danvers, Malden, and Woburn. That’s down 17 percent from last July, before the tighter criteria took effect.

On any given day, 2,000 individuals are homeless in and around North region cities, according to 2011 US Department of Housing and Urban Development data. For those who have minor children and no substance abuse issues, Family Promise offers a potential route back to stable housing and financial independence.

Family Promise North Shore Boston depends on 650 volunteers, most of whom give an average of two hours per hosting period. Recruiting and training the volunteers has been smooth, Sinagra said, as 30 “support congregations” have signed up to help share the load with host congregations.

They’re people such as Ann Geikie of First Parish Church in Beverly, where volunteers are already signing up for two-hour time slots in July. For her, volunteering means handling myriad logistics, from planning with guests an evening picnic at Dane Street Beach to coordinating towels to match color schemes in partitioned rooms.

The biggest challenge for prospective host congregations has been overcoming financial and regulatory hurdles. The program will need at least 13 host congregations in order to be sustainable over the long-term, Sinagra said. But even the current list of eight host congregations includes some that haven’t yet received approval from town officials.

Consider Danvers, where Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church is on Family Promise’s host list. The church is trying to raise $7,000 to bring systems to code for the space where people will sleep, said volunteer coordinator Mike Penza. “It’s frustrating,’’ he said, “because we want to be doing this right away, but the administrative piece . . . can take months.”

Salem currently has no host congregations. Sinagra hopes inspectors’ approvals will come for First Universalist Society of Salem, where congregants want to offer a host site. But church member Tom Gifford said he’s been unable even to find a licensed architect who’s willing to do a code review before city inspections can begin.

“I’ve given up,” Gifford said. For now, First Universalist will be a support congregation, which will allow Gifford and others from his church to volunteer at approved sites.

In Beverly, First Parish Church initially wanted to let guests sleep in a downstairs hall, but doing so would have required installing an expensive sprinkler system. Undeterred, parishioners decided to host guests in the upstairs worship space instead. That approach is still going to cost thousands for upgrades such as panic bars on exterior doors and carbon monoxide detectors, Geikie said. But the congregation is determined to make it work.

“This is something people just really take to their hearts,” Geikie said. “It’s just a very upsetting thing to hear about children who don’t know where they’re going to sleep at night, and parents who don’t know where their next meal is going to come from.”

G. Jeffrey MacDonald can be reached at g.jeffrey.macdonald@gmail.com.
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