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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Carina and her three children make a cozy bed before going to sleep for the night in Jordan Park in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013.

SALT LAKE CITY — Carina pulls her 2002 Buick Regal into a dark section of Jordan Park on Salt Lake City's west side.

The 31-year-old single mother and her three children emerge from the vehicle dressed in their pajamas. She pulls blankets and pillows from the trunk and spreads them out under a tree. The family sings "I Am a Child of God" and kneels as 8-year old Mahonri says the bedtime prayer.

And then they lie down at the close of another day that begins and ends in a car.

"I wish we had a home," Armon, 9, laments in the darkness of the mild summer night.

It's a wish that doesn't need a shooting star.

This will be one of their last nights sleeping on the ground or crammed in the car — or not sleeping, as usually is the case for Carina who worries about her two boys and 4-year-old daughter Larayina.

Last Wednesday evening the family walked through what would become their new home: A four-bedroom house made possible through Family Promise — Salt Lake, an interfaith alliance that helps homeless families.

"This is where I'm sleeping," Larayina says, staking her claim to a bedroom that smells of new carpet and fresh paint.

Carina and Armon stretch out on a donated queen-size mattress in another bedroom, and linger.

"This is nice," she said of the house. "Actually, it looks better than any place I've ever rented."

Living in a Buick

Carina never imagined she would be homeless.

At the beginning of the year, she and her live-in boyfriend of four years both had jobs. But then she says he asked her to stay home. She said he didn't like her talking to men at work and wanted food on the table when he came home.

Carina said she quit her job to avoid a confrontation. A couple of months later he left. She started a new full-time job July 12 but was already so far behind her apartment rent that the manager evicted her two weeks later. She sent the children to stay with their father in California and placed all her belongings in a storage unit while she figured things out.

Most of her extended family has returned to her native Samoa, leaving no options for even temporary living arrangements. She spent the first night on the backseat of the Buick wondering and crying.

"It was mostly crying and a lot of questions like, what am I going to do now? Just why, why is this happening to me? But all night, I just cried and cried and cried," she said in a soft voice with tears streaming down her cheeks.

Carina said she felt like a failure, like she let her children down. She brought them into the world and she needs to care for them. They don't deserve this. Depression and even suicidal thoughts filled her mind as the days in her car began to mount.

Pride, she said, initially kept her from seeking help from social service organizations. She came across an organization called Family Promise on the Internet.

Though she didn't bother to check in everyday as her case manager Tony Milner suggested, Milner called last week offering a house to rent. Milner is the Salt Lake executive director of Family Promise.

The offer came at just the right time. Her children returned from California and were eager for school. She enrolled them in an elementary school willing to accept them without a home address. They get breakfast and lunch each day. She filled their stomachs in the evening with meals and snacks from the food bank or an item to share off the McDonald's dollar menu.

Carina missed her last storage unit payment but after explaining her situation, the manager allowed her time to make good. Her boss at work also is understanding, giving her time off last week to get the housing situation worked out.

"What I learned so far from this experience, is that when you're honest, they're willing to help," Carina said.

One night in Sherwood Park a police officer came to her car. She told Carina she could report her to Child Protective Services. After explaining her plight, Carina said the officer said she understood because she has kids of her own.

A place to sleep

Carina signed the lease and Milner gave her the house keys Saturday. They are the first tenants in the newly remodeled home an anonymous owner provided for Family Promise to sublease. They will be able to stay for up to two years at $550 a month in what is dubbed Promise House.

They also met the family moving into the upper part of the large house. They all joined hands in a circle in the living room as Susan Roberts, a Family Promise board member, offered a blessing on the homes.

"Let the might power of the Holy God be present in this place to banish from it every unclean spirit, to cleanse it from every residue of evil and make it a secure habitation for those who dwell in it," she prayed.

Carina's eyes moistened during the prayer and scripture reading.

Afterward, Roberts asked the children if they could say anything to God, what would it be.

"Thank you," Mahonri said quietly.

"Please bless my family," Armon added.

Milner gave Carina a framed plaque for the wall reading: Promise House. You are welcome here!

"It’s going to be a great addition to the community to have a family here," said Laurie Robinson, Family Promise shelter and housing manager.

Robinson, who will act as the house's landlord, readied everything for the move in, though she'd like to find volunteers such as a Scout troop to plant grass or lay sod in the dry, weed-covered yard.

Family Promise is a nationwide organization with affiliates in 180 cities. The nonprofit Salt Lake office, formerly known as the Salt Lake Interfaith Hospitality Network, opened in 1995.

It partners with 10 area churches of several denominations that provide sleeping quarters for up to four families each night. Volunteers from another dozen congregations make meals and offer other assistance. The average stay is 45 days, said Tony Milner, Family Promise — Salt Lake executive director.

The number of homeless families — often single parent — has increased 9 percent since 2011, and comprises 45 percent of the state's homeless population, according to the 2012 Utah Comprehensive Report on Homelessness.

About 16,500 people were homeless in Utah last year, up 15 percent over the previous year, the report says.

It's common for homeless people to live out of their cars as Carina has the past month, said Lloyd Pendleton, director of the state's task force on homelessness. Parents sometimes worry that a group shelter would be unsafe for their children due to drug dealing and other criminal activity, he said.

Family Promise's goal is to put a permanent roof over people's heads. "We ultimately want to get ourselves out of business," Robinson said.

Carina said her children were good about living in the car. They talked a lot and reminisced about places they used to live. They spent evenings in the library reading books or surfing the Internet until closing. For showers, a friend let her hose off the children in the backyard. Sometimes, if she had enough money for gas, she drove around town until the kids fell asleep.

"It's kind of boring," Armon says. "You can't watch TV, but we can play in the park."

But they don't have to sleep there anymore.

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