Donated home gives Salem family much-needed stability

For James Cromwell, sitting down to help his kids with homework is a victory.

It’s what the Salem father missed most during the two years he was couchsurfing without regular housing: “The stability of coming home from work, asking my kids how their day was.”

Cromwell, his wife and three of their children are the first family to move into a new three-bedroom transitional home recently donated to Family Promise of the Mid-Willamette Valley. The nonprofit provides temporary housing to homeless families while working with them to find stability.

Tennessee-based manufacturer Clayton Homes donated the house fully furnished and Family Promise rents the lot it sits on from a property manager. It sits on the edge of a development in Keizer and will give families like the Cromwells space to rebuild their lives while establishing rental history.

“This family just had to overcome so much,” said Lindsay Savage, Family Promise’s shelter program manager.

The family was still unpacking in mid-March, and the home smelled brand new. An open kitchen led to the living room, where Cromwell and Savage sat on couches, talking about next steps.

The Cromwells were living in an apartment in south Salem in early 2020. Cromwell said they’d been there about a year and were doing fine. He paid the bills with a good job in sanitation at BrucePac, but then he broke his foot.

His worker’s compensation and later unemployment payments weren’t enough to keep up with rent. Then, his family got Covid: an early case that attracted the interest of local and federal health authorities who were scrambling to learn about the disease.

“I couldn’t leave the house and then they wanted to know exactly when it started, how it stopped, when it transmitted to the next person, how long it took,” he said.

His foot took months to heal. Cromwell said the apartment had numerous maintenance issues he could never get managers to address, everything from door knobs not working to the in-unit washer and dryer breaking down.

But they were reliable about sending him bills as he fell behind in payments.

“I tried to explain to them, ‘Look I can pay this off on my taxes,’” he said. “They did not want to meet me in the middle at all.”

The apartment management evicted the Cromwells, but because of the Covid eviction moratorium, they couldn’t force the family to move out.

Instead, unbeknownst to the family, the landlord continued to charge them rent each month, plus penalties and interest. They remained unwilling to negotiate a payment plan, Cromwell said.

In 2021, the family was finally evicted, moving out with $11,000 in debt.

Cromwell went to live with his parents. He said his anxiety spiked with the stress of not having a permanent living arrangement. He and his wife both worked in home care and didn’t earn enough to get their own place.

“The majority of families are living paycheck to paycheck. And so even staying with my parents looking for places to live … but not being able to and just falling into this disparaging: ‘You’re homeless, you’re homeless, you’re homeless with five kids,’” he said. “Having that $11,000 hanging over my head, nobody’s gonna want to rent to me.”

The family spent about two years living with several relatives before they got connected to Family Promise in 2023. By then, Cromwell’s two oldest children were living with other family. He, his wife and their 11-, 10- and 4-year-olds entered the Family Promise program, staying a week at a time with local congregations that open space for families.

Cromwell said he was initially apprehensive about moving between churches but wanted to get his children on a path to more stability.

“If you do not have that in a child’s life, they don’t have it as an adult. They don’t know how to create it,” he said. “If you don’t have structure, you’re not going to raise a healthy, well-centered individual. And that was my utmost concern was their emotional and physical well being.”

He said the Family Promise staff immediately treated them like family.

“They give you that first taste of stability,” he said.

As they cycled between churches, Savage worked with the family to file for bankruptcy to handle the debt from their previous rental. She said while the families they work with often have debt stemming from prior evictions, their case was unique for the amount their landlord continued charging them while in eviction proceedings.

“This family had to overcome so much,” she said.

When Family Promise got the home donated, Savage said they started thinking about which of the families they serve could benefit from it. The Cromwells were top of the list because of the challenges they would face finding a landlord willing to rent to them, and the amount of work they’d put in to improving their lives.

They moved in mid-February. Their rent is subsidized through a county program, so Cromwell pays only $60 per month in rent. He’s now working at Dollar Tree.

They’ll be able to keep the rental subsidy for two years and will then be eligible for a federal housing voucher they can use to subsidize rent at any apartment.

Cromwell said he wants other struggling families to know Family Promise can help them find housing.

“We invested our time and our hearts in Family Promise and they kept their promise,” he said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.