Featured Stories, Lutherans in the Twin Cities

‘When did I see you homeless and offer a home …’

Lutherans have a long history of reaching out to the needy in the neighborhoods around downtown Minneapolis. Two ELCA congregations in particular — Central Lutheran at 333 South 12th Street and Augustana Lutheran at 704 11th Avenue South, both on the south edge of the business district — seem to have had social consciousness as part of their DNA virtually from the start.

Today Central carries on that tradition through recently renovated quarters in its education wing called the Restoration Center, while Augustana continues to provide a major food shelf and a Meals on Wheels program at its Community Emergency Services building in the Phillips neighborhood.

But even as these parishes work to enhance their traditional services, they are also moving in a new direction. They have joined 12 other downtown faith communities with similar commitments to serving the poor. Through this new united effort they are working to increase their impact on the community and, more importantly, they are seeking to bring an end to a problem they see at their doorsteps every day — homelessness.

Allied with the two Lutheran congregations in the new coalition, called Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness (DCEH), is another longtime leader in the social justice field — Plymouth Congregational Church at 19th Street and Nicollet Avenue. There another Lutheran, Connie Marty, serves as the director of outreach programs, working with the leaders of 15 separate programs. Marty, a member of Nativity Lutheran Church (ELCA) in St. Anthony Village, Minnesota, is a graduate of St. Olaf College, and has spent a considerable part of the past 30 years in social justice work.

A lot of people were coming to the conclusion that it was time to stop managing homelessness with band-aid approaches and put an end to it.

Connie Marty, director of outreach programs for Plymouth Congregational Church in south Minneapolis, outlines the objectives of Downtown Congregations to End Poverty.

Connie Marty, director of outreach programs for Plymouth Congregational Church in south Minneapolis, outlines the objectives of Downtown Congregations to End Poverty. Metro Lutheran photo: Robert Ylvisaker

The work of DCEH is closely linked to the Minneapolis/Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness. That agency says there are approximately 3,000 homeless people in Hennepin County. On one night in January 2009, an outreach team from the agency identified 235 individuals unsheltered and living on the streets, in cars or in other places “unfit for human habitation.”

“What we’ve been doing isn’t effective enough,” Marty says. “We have more homeless people than five years ago. … The faith community has to stand up and say, ‘There has to be a shift here.’”

Preparing to become ‘welcomers’

Shortly after Marty was hired at Plymouth five years ago, she was encouraged to contact the outreach workers at other downtown congregations and find out what they were doing. This was not a radical departure from past practice, Marty said. Senior pastors from the downtown churches had been meeting monthly for a number of years, building close relationships, and even working together in areas such as food shelves and Habitat for Humanity projects.

The outreach staffs started meeting four times a year, and it became evident in their discussions that they could be doing a lot more, especially in the area of homelessness, according to Rolf Lowenberg-DeBoer, coordinator of community ministries at Central and head of its Restoration Center program.

Leaders in the city, county, downtown business community, and faith community were all working on the problem, and a lot of people were coming to the conclusion that it was time to stop managing homelessness with band-aid approaches and put an end to it, Lowenberg-DeBoer said. Not only was there a clear moral imperative but also an economic one: Getting people off the streets would save money.

The conviction that a new approach was needed took concrete shape in March 2006 when nearly 70 leaders from the business, faith, government, and nonprofit sectors, as well as people experiencing homelessness, came together for 100 days and created Heading Home Hennepin, a 10-year plan to end homelessness.

Two years later, after much spadework, 13 downtown congregations formed DCEH, to work in support of the Heading Home Hennepin recommendations. Not only would they streamline their services to the homeless, but they would educate their members on the need for a paradigm shift in the approach to the problem and enlist their members as advocates for the systemic changes required.

Leaders in the outreach programs of the congregations formed the steering committee of DCEH and now meet monthly. Heidi Johnson McAllister was hired as full-time congregational organizer and given an office at Central. Lowenberg-DeBoer said when he first attended meetings of the outreach staffs, there was a lot of talking, but it became evident they needed somebody to organize their efforts.

“We knew what we needed to do,” he said. “Heidi helped us do what we needed to do.”

Heading home

The two main thrusts to DCEH’s work — direct services to the homeless and advocacy for systemic change — are reflected in the way the steering committee is organized. Outreach staff workers from four congregations with longstanding on-site aid programs — Central, Hennepin Avenue United Methodist, and St. Olaf and the Basilica of St. Mary Catholic churches — serve on a direct services committee. Augustana, which didn’t join DCEH until this year, is regarded as a fifth provider of direct services.

Augustana’s move into the organization came after its recently installed pastor, the Rev. Michelene Verlautz, brought in a series of speakers to talk about different aspects of homelessness. “I knew it would be an area that our congregation would be very passionate about,” she said.

Many of the other partner congregations focus strongly on advocacy, and their outreach staff members work through the advocacy committee of the DCEH steering committee. They identify and train members of their congregations who want to do advocacy, and these persons then commit to advocate on issues relating to ending homelessness every other week from January to May when the Minnesota Legislature is in session. The issues are culled from action alerts put out by other faith-based groups.The advocacy groups in congregations carry the name “Heading Home [congregation name],” as in Heading Home Plymouth.

Congregations that provide direct services also have advocacy groups, swelling the number of participants considerably. “We’re engaging 700 members of downtown congregations in doing direct advocacy,” Connie Marty said.

Lowenberg-DeBoer credits the outpouring of advocacy work with saving the General Assistance Medical Care program for the poor during the 2010 legislative session. Advocates then turned their attention to fighting cuts in the general assistance rental subsidy program for single persons, he said.

Besides the emphasis on advocacy, the signature project of DCEH to date has been its teaming with the Downtown Council in an effort to move 150 homeless persons out of two seriously overcrowded shelters on Currie Avenue and into permanent housing. The partners agreed to raise $350,000 that would fund 10 new case workers, each of whom would work with 15 shelter residents to make the transition during a six-month period in 2010.

While fund-raising was behind schedule, as of early April, eight case workers had been hired or were in the process of being hired, the first three shelter residents had been moved into new housing, and the partners were hopeful the project would be completed by the end of the summer.

“It’s an amazing partnership, a really positive step,” Lowenberg-DeBoer said.

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