Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Helping the homeless in our midst

Single adults need shelter, but famlies with children need even more

Mike (last name undisclosed) confronted me as I waited on Nicollet Mall for a transfer bus. He was neat and tidy, polite and respectful. He didn’t ask me for money — at least, not initially.

The stranger seemed eager to talk. I had ten minutes until my bus arrived, so we chatted.

He said, “My name’s Mike. What’s yours?” When he learned it was the same as his, he asked, “Do you know what that name means?”

Obviously he knew the answer, because he spoke it with me: “One who is like God.” I said to him, “I find the meaning behind that name a difficult one to live up to.”

“You can say that again, man.” He grinned. “But I keep tryin’.”

And then he was off, telling me his story. He told about growing up in Duluth, about serving in the military, about his skills as a construction worker, about losing a job due to a layoff, about relocating to the Twin Cities in search of employment, about a slide into substance abuse, and about life on the street.

It’s amazing how much someone can tell you in ten minutes.
I couldn’t determine whether Mike was conning me or giving me the straight stuff. I have to confess, I was impressed that he knew at least one Hebrew word — the meaning of his name, and mine.

I was not carrying any cash. He didn’t seem to be troubled by that. He thanked me profusely for listening to his story. My bus arrived and, as I climbed on, I noticed Mike had moved down the block and was trying to tell it to someone else — someone who was indicating to him with a shake of his head that he wasn’t all that interested.

As my bus headed for the Third Avenue Bridge I found myself wondering, what’s the right response for someone whose name means ‘One who is like God,’ when it comes to helping a homeless person?

Lutheran Christians struggle with this question on a regular basis. Any of us who pull up at a freeway on-ramp or exit lane, where there’s a traffic light to slow us down, have seen their signs, because they seem to be everywhere. “Homeless … Anything will help … God bless.”

The homeless fall into two broad categories. Single adults, such as Mike, can find overnight housing in a temporary shelter, several of which exist in the Twin Cities.
Unfortunately there are more homeless than spaces for them. That leads the shelters to offer a nightly lottery. If you win, you get a bed. The odds are far better than with the Minnesota Powerball, but it’s still a lottery — which means you could end up sleeping under a bridge or in a dumpster (it happens).

The other category is families (often single-parent) with children. These rootless ones require a completely different, and in many ways more complicated, solution.
That’s where groups like “Families Moving Forward” (FMF) come in. I talked to FMF’s executive director, Leslie Frost. Here’s some of what she told me.

* There are two main causes of homelessness — poverty and a lack of affordable housing.

* Homeless children are in special need, because they’re so vulnerable. Says Frost, “Homelessness damages them. Children are resilient, but rootlessness can be traumatic for them.”

What’s “affordable” depends on one’s circumstances. When income is limited to cash assistance, disability income or spousal support — and a two-bedroom rental in Hennepin County averages $900 a month — affordability can be elusive at best.

* The short-term housing provided through a group like FMF is woefully insufficient to meet the demand. “We can have 25 requests for a single space,” Frost ex-plains. That means most of those seeking shelter have to be turned away.

Where do the others go? Some make arrangements with friends or relatives. But that’s never a long-term solution. Some are known to live in their automobiles for a time, not a great environment for small children. In warmer weather, some actually take up residence in public parks.

How does the Families Moving For-ward model work? It’s really quite ingenious. The FMF site in north Minneapolis provides space for homeless families during the daytime hours. In the evenings they’re taken by bus or van to either of two Christian congregations in the metro area (see box).
The overnight stays are in spaces provided by the participating congregations, in their parish halls or basements. It takes an average of 100 volunteers at a given parish to make the program work. The helpers prepare and serve meals; set up and (at week’s end) take down beds; provide activities for the children; and coordinate the local operation.

A participating congregation hosts homeless families, perhaps 4-6 at a time, for one week (evenings and mornings only). They repeat this hospitality several times in a calendar year. With around 40 congregations in the program, the task becomes manageable.

Frost says, “We’re a faith-based organization, not a Christian one. We happen to have only Christian churches in our program at present, but we’d be happy to expand that to other faith communities.”

FMF was established in 1991 by a group of clergy and congregational volunteers. The goal was then, and still is, to provide safe and supportive emergency shelter to families in need of housing — and to provide safe, affordable supported housing to formerly homeless families.

To accomplish the latter goal, FMF currently owns Mel’s Place, several units of family rental housing in north Minneapolis, along with Third Avenue Town-homes, a 12-family rental facility in south Minneapolis. A 16-unit family rental development in Fridley opened in 2006.

During its existence, FMF has served over 1,000 families (more than 3,500 individuals). Of those served, 51% have moved from the shelter to permanent housing or to long-term transitional housing.

Given the challenges of homelessness, how much light is there at the end of this tunnel? Says Frost, “We see a faint glimmer. The federal government has begun an initiative to create 10-year plans to address the problem. Several now exist in Minnesota.

“One of them is called ‘Heading Home Hennepin.’ It’s a great concept. I really love it. I hope the community will embrace it.”

Heading Home Henne-pin seeks teams of people in faith communities to welcome homeless families into their midst. Family mentoring is a significant part of it.

Frost is a realist. “It will take incredible political and community will to fix the [homelessness] problem — and a boatload of money.”

Lutherans have already stepped up. But there’s still much more to be done.

* * *

Twin Cities Lutheran Congregations
participating in Families Moving Forward

Advent Lutheran Church, Maple Grove
Berea Lutheran Church, Richfield
Calvary Lutheran Church, Golden Valley
Christ the King Lutheran Church, Bloomington
Edina Community Lutheran Church
Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Minneapolis
Messiah Lutheran Church, Mounds View
Minnetonka Lutheran Church
Peace Lutheran Church, Plymouth
Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Shoreview
St. Philip the Deacon Lutheran Church, Plymouth
Transfiguration Lutheran, Bloomington
University Lutheran Church of Hope, Minneapolis
Westwood Lutheran Church, St. Louis Park
Woodlake Lutheran Church, Richfield

Other participating denominations:

Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Congregational, United Methodist, United Church of Christ, Greek Orthodox

* * *

How to get your congregation started in FMF

Attend an “Opening Doors” tour at the north Minneapolis Center:

* First Saturday of the month at 10:00 a.m.
* Third Wednesday of the month at 11:30 a.m.

Call for more information: 612/529-2185
Or, visit www.familiesmovingforward.org