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When Agustin Melendez, his girlfriend and their two young daughters became homeless in September after the landlord raised the rent on their small apartment on the Buffalo’s Lower West Side, the family wanted to stay together above all else.

“I think dads, they’ve got to be there,” the Puerto Rico native said of his girls, Ana, 3, and Elena, 18 months. “Emotionally, these girls, every time they see me, they go crazy. They want to sleep at night making sure that daddy’s in the room.”

But when a family becomes homeless, they’re sometimes separated at night, with fathers sleeping at one shelter, women and children at another.

“That is just so traumatic,” said Dale Zuchlewski, executive director of the Homeless Alliance of Western New York. “Not only are you suffering the trauma of homelessness, but then some program split your family up, and that is never good.”

Erie County’s Department of Social Services referred Melendez to Family Promise of Western New York – a nonprofit that partners with area churches to provide families a safe, welcoming place to stay during the stressful time of uncertainty and upheaval.

“They love cuddling up next to father,” Melendez’s girlfriend, Carrie Dole, 28, said of her daughters. “My father died when I was young. I know what it’s like to not have a father in your life. But that’s not what I want for them. I want their dad in their life. I’m glad Family Promise was able to keep us together.”

On the surface, Family Promise operates with a skeleton staff of two part-time and two full-time employees and a budget of $170,000 made up of donations, grants and reimbursements from Social Services.

The group’s main fundraiser – “Singing for a Family Promise, Singing for a Dream” – will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday in Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo, 695 Elmwood Ave.

But at its core is a vast network of nearly 1,000 volunteers and 14 religious congregations spread across the area providing families basic services – most importantly, a way to stay together.

“Our program keeps them together, keeps them in one location and keeps them united,” said Casimir T. Czamara, who was hired in January as executive director.

He is leading efforts to relocate the program’s “Family Resource Center” from a cramped Glendhu Place home in South Buffalo to a 3,100-square-foot former bank on French Road in Cheektowaga’s Garden Village Plaza scheduled to open in early November.

Nearly five times larger than the current space, the new center is outfitted with a kitchen, laundry and staff offices. It’s where adults will be driven from the host church each morning in the program’s van to meet case manager Denise Morse, look online for jobs and apartments and receive mail.

Renting the new space for $1,200 a month with an option to buy after three years is a bold move for the organization, said Sandy Seitz, president of the board She was homeless with her daughter in the 1990s.

“Our vision is to own it in three years, so the board was more willing to go in that new direction,” Seitz said.

‘A safe place’

At night, however, families eat, relax and sleep at one of the 14 churches, whose hosting duties rotate weekly, ensuring that each can expect three or four turns annually.

On a late-September evening, Melendenz, Dole and the girls were in Clarence United Methodist Church’s community room dining on barbecue hamburgers, chef salad and macaroni and cheese after a day of hunting for apartments and jobs. A classroom down the hall had been converted to a bedroom with air mattresses on the floor and names posted on the door on brightly colored construction paper.

“We are being servants to people to give them a safe place, a warm place and to feed them hearty meals during the time that they are staying with us,” said Marian McAllister, the Clarence church’s Family Promise coordinator. “We know it’s a difficult situation for them to be in.”

Sometimes there are no families in the program, and sometimes there are three, as there were that night in Clarence. A male and female volunteer stay overnight. Family Promise doesn’t accept anyone with a history of drug or alcohol abuse, or domestic violence.

The program in 2012 assisted 20 families consisting of 70 individuals, though it’s on track to surpass that this year, Czamara said. Family homelessness increased in 2012, most sharply among families headed by single mothers, said Zuchlewski. Most often the cause is poverty and a lack of living-wage jobs, he said.

“People who are homeless want a job,” he said. “They want to work. But it’s very difficult to pay your rent and just get by on a minimum-wage job. We just have too many service-level jobs here that just aren’t paying enough.”

Gretchen Montgomery, a retail and customer service worker, was homeless and living at the Clarence church after moving here from South Carolina with her fiancee and daughters, Aiyana, 3, and Janiyah, 6. But they were ready to leave the program the next day for an East Side apartment. Family Promise will follow up with them for a year to ensure they do well.

“The volunteers have been very nice,” Montgomery said, while Aiyana played nearby with another family’s 3-year-old. “I’ve met wonderful people.”

Short stay is goal

The recent trend in helping those who are homeless is known nationally as the Rapid Re-Housing model, which aims at getting homeless people into permanent housing as quickly as possible.

“You give them the resources they need to leave quickly and provide them with the first month’s rent, apartment search, some case management after they’re housed in order to keep them stable in their housing,” said Zuchlewski. “That’s proven to be a very successful model.”

While Family Promise doesn’t adhere to that model – it’s an affiliate of the national Interfaith Hospitality Network – a family’s stay with the program is down now to an average of 19 days, Czamara said.

“That is significantly less than it was in previous years because we’re moving them through and getting them stabilized quicker,” he said.

Families enter the program with the understanding they’ll move every seven days. Melendez, Dole and the girls would move the next day to Unitarian Universalist Church in East Aurora.

Family Promise’s ultimate goal is to buy a home with multiple apartments to eliminate the shuffling around while still utilizing its volunteer network to provide meals.

“That’s a lofty goal, but I think it’s doable,” Czamara said.

As for Melendez, his ultimate goal is to go back to school for HVAC repair, while Dole hopes to put her industrial technology degree from Buffalo State College to use. They abandoned some of their belongings, stored some at a friend’s house and carried only clothes in rolling suitcases and some treasured tennis rackets.

But by the beginning of October, after three weeks in the program, the family found a suitable apartment on the West Side. “We’re just happy we have a place to stay now,” Dole said. “That was our main goal – to find a place to call our own.”

email: jpopiolkowski@buffnews.com