The family is seated, holding each other
DJ and Kathy Blue and son Gabriel are staying in two Peninsula synagogues as part of the Home & Hope program. (Photo/Rob Gloster)

Homeless families finding shelter in Peninsula synagogues

Kathy Blue recently found herself in the unexpected position of teaching others about the rules of keeping kosher. Not surprising for someone who temporarily called a synagogue social hall her home.

Blue, who grew up Catholic in New York, has been homeless since moving to California. Along with husband DJ and 3-year-old son Gabriel, she has been hosted since mid-March by Burlingame-based Home & Hope, one of several Bay Area interfaith agencies that shelter families in churches and synagogues.

The Blues, along with three other homeless families, spent last week in the social hall at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills and are spending their nights this week — including dinner and breakfast the next morning — at Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City.

“One of the other mothers asked me what kosher is, so I explained it,” she said. “I’m Catholic, but we grew up in New York and that’s the melting pot of religions.”

Meg Clark, executive director of Home & Hope, said she cannot remember a Jewish family being among those served by her organization — which boasts 16 host congregations — so there’s sometimes a bit of explaining to be done when they stay at synagogues.

Volunteers serve meals to the families, often joining them at the dinner table. Clark said about 1,200 to 1,400 volunteers a year interact with the families, who spend an average of 108 days in the program.

“We ask the volunteers to educate the guests about their culture,” Clark said. “There is sometimes confusion, but a lot of adaptation and understanding.”

Beth Am has hosted Home & Hope families for a week in April and another week in December since 2011. More than 50 families from the congregation volunteer during those weeks, some staying overnight in sleeping bags on air mattresses.

Volunteers cook meals, help with homework, play games and offer advice on finding housing or a job. Beth Am Rabbi Jon Prosnit said the program helps the volunteers as well as the guest families.

“It is hard to find good mitzvah projects for families,” he said in an interview in the synagogue’s social hall, where four white tents took the space usually used by Beth Am’s youth drama program. “There are a lot of benefits. It’s nice to be able to host families that are on the trajectory to getting their lives in order.

All synagogues and churches should always do more, should always be dissatisfied with the way the world is.

“The conversations that parents and kids can have afterwards, after volunteering, are great. It’s hard to see a 7-year-old sleeping in one of these tents, which are smaller than some [volunteer] kids’ rooms.”

Prosnit, who as a child volunteered with his dad at a men’s shelter held at their synagogue in New York, said two congregants — Gabe Schacter-Brodie and Jeffrey Birdwell — brought the Home & Hope program to Beth Am as part of their bar mitzvah projects.

The rabbi said he mentions the Home & Hope program during Shabbat sermons when the families are there — the social hall is directly across the hall from the sanctuary at Beth Am — but doesn’t make a big deal out of it.

“We don’t want to pat ourselves on the back too much,” he said. “All synagogues and churches should always do more, should always be dissatisfied with the way the world is.”

Home & Hope provides tents and cots for the families, who shower at the Burlingame day center and use that as a base as they search for jobs and homes. A majority of the families do find permanent homes, though not always in the Bay Area.

DJ Blue moved his family from New Jersey to Sacramento after being promised a job there. When that didn’t work out, he came to the Bay Area in search of work and because of the Home & Hope program.

He had just returned from his first day as a maintenance worker at a property management company and settled in to watch TV with Gabriel at the Home & Hope day center.

“It was great, it was amazing [at Beth Am], my family felt welcome,” DJ said. “And Home & Hope is a very good organization because it helps families transition. I want to be a first-time homeowner.”

Soon he was off for another job interview as his wife took over supervision of their son. Kathy Blue said the volunteers at Beth Am and other host congregations help the guest families while respecting their privacy.

“The volunteers come with their children, so our kids have someone to play with,” she said. “There’s a lot of compassion; there’s not a lot of prying.”

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Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster is J.'s senior writer. He can be reached at rob@jweekly.com.