By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — A disagreement over compliance with the town fire code is preventing three homeless families from staying at Triumphant Cross Lutheran Church as planned.
Last night, 14 homeless people, including several children, had to stay at Calvary Bible Church in Derry. They cannot sleep at Triumphant Cross or two other Salem churches until the congregations comply with fire regulations, according to fire Chief Kevin Breen.
"We understand their sense of urgency and that they exist to help people in need," Breen said yesterday. "Unless they have met the codes, we can't allow them to have occupancy."
Breen said the churches have known since December that hosting families without significant safety upgrades, including the installation of sprinkler systems, would violate fire regulations.
Family Promise of Greater Rockingham County also was notified by the state fire marshal's office in January that the churches would have to meet safety requirements, Breen said.
But Triumphant Cross council member Richard Hartung, also a Hampstead selectman, said Breen didn't make it clear until two weeks ago that the families could not stay at the churches unless the chief waived the fire sprinkler requirement.
The churches are among 20 Southern New Hampshire congregations that would host homeless families at 11 area churches, including at least three in Salem, as part of a network operated by Family Promise.
The network began sheltering families in late February. A day center opened at Calvary Bible Church to give the families a place to look for jobs and apartments, and have meals while the children go to school. At night, the families sleep and share dinner at a rotation of churches for a week at a time.
This week, the families would have stayed at Triumphant Cross, Pastor David Yasenka said.
But there is a dispute over why the families can't stay in Salem.
Hartung said Breen explained sprinkler systems would be needed at some point, but church staff didn't realize they had to be installed now.
Hartung admits he may have misunderstood the chief, but doesn't believe that's the case.
"It wasn't explained that we needed the waiver," Hartung said. "Maybe I was just naive."
Yasenka and officials at two other Salem congregations, St. David's Episcopal Church and First Congregational Church, said they are disappointed they couldn't begin serving the families.
They are waiting for Breen to decide whether to grant the waiver. Meanwhile, they are working to make the necessary upgrades, including the installation of hard-wired carbon monoxide and smoke detectors. St. David's needed a $14,000 fire alarm system, according to the Rev. Carolyn Stevenson.
A similar situation occurred in Derry at Calvary Bible Church, where fire Chief George Klauber granted a waiver after the church necessary upgrades.
The Salem church leaders said they don't want to compromise on safety and aren't blaming anyone for the delay.
"It's a little bit frustrating, but we just couldn't start doing it," Yasenka said. "We understand why those in charge of the code want to make sure it's as safe as we can make it. We're committed to providing housing to families in Salem."
St. David's and First Congregational are scheduled to begin hosting families June 9. Church leaders hope the problem can be resolved by then.
"We're hoping it will all get worked out quickly," Stevenson said.
"I think we're all trying to keep the families safe," said Merri Carlson of First Congregational Church.
Breen didn't say when he would make a decision on the waiver. The town's code is based on the national fire safety code and is stricter than the state code, he said.
Deputy State Fire Marshal Robert Farley sent an email to Family Promise three months ago, Breen said.
"It is important that you continue to work with local officials in each community that you propose using churches for housing as they must approve the proposal prior to the families moving in," Farley wrote.
Granting the waiver would allow the churches to host families if the rooms where they stay have exterior doors, Breen said. Triumphant will be putting those doors in each of three rooms that would accommodate families, Yasenka said.
Hartung said he anxiously awaits Breen's decision.
"He has to live with the code, but he has the power to waive," Hartung said. "Where would these people be if it weren't for (the churches)? Some would be sleeping in their cars and that's not safe."
In addition to Derry and Salem, the 20 congregations are in Hampstead, Chester, Plaistow, Sandown, Londonderry, Sandown, East Kingston, Hooksett and Raymond.
Family Promise board president Melanie Nesheim could not be reached yesterday for comment.