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By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

The Keizer City Council got a glimpse into one of the more successful organizations tackling the problem of homelessness in the mid-Willamette Valley.

Recently-arrived Keizer resident TJ Putman briefly spoke to the council about his work as executive director of the Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN), a non-profit collective of 19 local churches transitioning homeless families into homes of their own.

“We’re having great outcomes. You guys are making a difference in homelessness and you probably didn’t even know it,” Putman said.

Salem and Keizer partner as a joint jurisdiction to tap into the HOME Investment Partnership Program offered by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

IHN receives about $200,000 annually to help rehouse families with children, but services it has developed around that core need have led to a 96 percent success rate once families move out of temporary shelter.

Each week, an IHN church – including St. Edward Catholic Church in Keizer – opens up its doors to homeless families who receive a meal and spend the evening there before returning to the IHN day site in west Salem to prepare for school and work. Keizer’s Salem Mennonite Church and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are supporting congregations, but do not host.

“Volunteers from the churches and the community prepare meals for families and there is always an overnight volunteer to help in case of emergencies,” said Putman.

As families progress through IHN’s continuum of care, they can eventually qualify for housing assistance that covers security deposits and assists with rent payment. The families themselves contribute a minimum of $50 and as much as a third of their income depending on their resources.

It costs about $3,500 per family to make the leap from homelessness to their own living space.

The goal is for every family to enter their own home after leaving the church sheltering program, but Putman attributes its high success rate to the supplemental services IHN wraps around each family.

“We know that parents want a better life for their kids, so we have case managers that work with families on everything from parenting to budgeting and conflict resolution,” Putman said.

Last year, IHN added an on-site pet facility that has served more than a dozen cats, dogs and one snake in the past year.

“The reality is that for someone facing the most difficult time of their life, they will choose to sleep outside rather than be separated from their pets so we added that to our services,” Putman said.

Even after graduating to a space of their own, families continue to work with IHN case managers, which helps bolster the effort to remain independent.

IHN started in 1999 with eight churches and has more than doubled since then. Unfortunately, need is also on the rise. Putman said IHN has seen a 31 percent increase in requests for services in the past year and has had to turn away 40 to 50 families each month.

The squeeze is partly the result of the lack of affordable housing in the area, he said.

“On average there is somewhere between a .5 and 4 percent vacancy rate in the available housing stock each month. Only about a quarter of that is available to people who struggle,” he said. “Currently, there are 3,400 people on the waiting list for Section 8 housing in Salem and Keizer and the list is closed. Housing everyone on the list right now might take three years or more.”

To make a contribution or view the IHN “wish list,” visit salemihn.org.