Kevin Riordan: Giving a hand to Gloucester County homeless who try to help themselves

Gary Salmon, the longtime Lutheran minister who now is executive director of Family Promise of Gloucester County, says, "I refuse to work harder for my families than they are willing to work for themselves."
Gary Salmon, the longtime Lutheran minister who now is executive director of Family Promise of Gloucester County, says, "I refuse to work harder for my families than they are willing to work for themselves."
Posted: January 08, 2012

Gary Salmon, an advocate for Gloucester County's homeless families, speaks in the calming cadences of his native Minnesota.

But if someone suggests his clients ("guests") are lazy slackers looking for handouts, Salmon's voice gets a Jersey edge.

"Sometimes people just need a little bit of help!" says Salmon, 61, executive director of the nonprofit Family Promise of Gloucester County.

"I refuse to work harder for my families than they are willing to work for themselves," the longtime Lutheran minister and former pastor of the Pitman Lutheran Church declares. "But if they make an effort, I will bust my ass to be their champion."

Since 2006, when the Gloucester County affiliate of the nationwide, faith-based Family Promise network opened in Glassboro, about 70 homeless families have utilized its free services.

About two-thirds have obtained permanent housing; the rest have gone back to couch-surfing with family and friends, or to places such as Camden's bleak Tent City encampment. Or worse.

Salmon, whose wife, Katherine Killebrew, is pastor of Collingswood Presbyterian Church, has a warm heart. But he has limits.

Guests who won't follow Family Promise's 28-page manual, don't stay clean and sober, or leave the nondenominational program aren't welcome to come back. And not everyone is admitted.

"My sniffer is pretty good, but I've been conned a few times," Salmon says.

"One of the toughest parts of the job is turning people away. I had a very desperate mother of six kids call me the other day, but our resources are limited."

Salmon is the sole employee at the agency, whose offices include a downtown "day center" where clients may store belongings, receive mail, and hunt for work. Family Promise's $100,000 annual budget comes entirely from donations.

"While we're always struggling to pay our bills, if [Gov.] Christie makes budget cuts, we can still do what we do," Salmon says.

Volunteers such as Dennis J. Zisa, a Camden Realtor who lives in Gloucester Township, make it all possible. Four or five times a year, he and his wife, Maureen, stay overnight with families at St. Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Church in Turnersville - one of the churches that helped get Family Promise started in the county.

Other volunteers drive the van that transports guests, as well as the roll-away beds that Family Promise will soon replace with air mattresses, thanks to a grant. Most often, the families sleep in classrooms at church schools.

"We've been blessed," says Zisa, 61. "And working in Camden, I'm particularly sensitive to the housing challenges facing lower-income people."

As Salmon notes, "Cheap housing is not where the employment is. Public transportation to get from affordable housing to employment is not affordable, and we haven't begun to factor in the cost of child care."

Clients - usually a single mother and her child, or children - are referred by other agencies or churches.

The family is out of work, money, and options. It needs transportation and day care, something to eat, and a safe place to sleep.

"We're not getting the laid-off college professor," Salmon says. "We're getting people at the bottom, who have exhausted their resources.

Though some "have made bad choices" and are reaping the consequences, more often his guests have "become homeless through no fault of their own," particularly in the current economy, he adds.

Winnetta Ricks, 45, had been living in a motel on Black Horse Pike with daughter Briana, 11. Now she's taking online classes - she dreams of becoming a writer - and looking for something affordable in a county where a two-bedroom apartment typically runs $1,000 or more a month.

Fellow client Katrina Stevens, a mother of two young sons, says she's been "striving, and trying to find housing."

Stevens, originally from Pennsauken, has been with Family Promise for five months. Many clients leave sooner, but every case is different, Salmon notes.

Stevens has a job as a health aide ("I love it") and something else: hope.

"I'm saving up for something in a nice little area my boys can call home," she says.


Contact staff writer Kevin

Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter.

Read the metro columnists'

blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

"Sometimes people just need a little bit of help!" says Salmon

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