Archived Sections, Lutherans in the Twin Cities

"O give me a home, at least for tonight!"

Sandy Aslaksen stands by a bed available for a homesless person.

Sandy Aslaksen stands by a bed available for a homesless person.

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church is serious about serving the homeless.

When the Minneapolis city government appealed to churches in the city to provide overnight shelter for the many homeless people wandering the streets 20 years ago, Our Saviour’s Lutheran was one of about a dozen that responded.
Members of the ELCA congregation, an inner-city parish located at 24th Street and Chicago Avenue just south of downtown, had not only heard and read about the homeless problem; they had seen evidence of it up close in their own neighborhood.
But, like most other people in the metro area, members of Our Saviour’s thought the situation was a short-term emergency, and they responded in a limited way. They set up chairs and cleared floor space in the basement of their parish house for 20 homeless people and recruited volunteers to sit up through the night to supervise the operation during the winter months from November to March.
The problem of homelessness has proved to be anything but a passing phenomenon, however, growing during good economic times as well as bad for two decades. The most recent survey by the Wilder Foundation showed that on any given night there are over 7,000 homeless persons living in shelters or wandering outdoors in Minnesota, more than twice the number a decade earlier, in 1991.
The vast majority of these homeless persons are in the metro area, and that figure tripled during the 1990s.
As the serious nature of the problem became evident, Our Saviour’s stepped up its efforts to cope with it. Now known formally as Our Saviour’s Housing, the program has a $600,000 annual budget. It operates out of three remodeled residential buildings and a converted medical clinic in the block north of the church. Another facility is located several blocks away, on Portland Avenue.
A paid staff of 16 full- and part-time workers served just over 1,000 persons who came to the doors of Our Saviour’s seeking shelter in 2001. The money to pay for the program came from four major sources:
* 27% from government contracts;
* 27% from donations by some 700 individuals and be-quests;
* 25% from 32 foundations and corporations; and
* 18% from 75 congregations and church-affiliated or-ganizations, all but eight of them Lutheran.
Our Saviour’s Housing also depends heavily on the non-monetary contributions of over 2000 volunteer workers who come from congregations across the religious spectrum, colleges and the business sector. These individuals and groups provide hot evening meals, noon bag lunches and weekend breakfasts for shelter residents and handle all types of interior and exterior maintenance of the program’s physical facilities, as well as other duties.
Despite the fact that Our Saviour’s has had to reach beyond its own walls for the financial support and volunteer work needed to keep pace with the growing problem of homelessness (and has welcomed these contributions), it has kept the program close to its Christian — and Lutheran — roots.
“I feel pretty passionately that this is a Gospel-based ministry,” said Sandra Aslaksen, executive director of Our Saviour’s Housing since 1999.
“Jesus says the kingdom is at hand. The kingdom is at hand at 24th and Chicago, and this is the work we’re to be about.”
Aslaksen is a former LCMS parochial school teacher who became a rostered associate in ministry in the ELCA when it was formed in 1988. When she came aboard as an associate minister at Our Saviour’s, she sensed that during the rapid growth of the housing program, members of the congregation had lost the feeling that it was a ministry of their church.
One reason for this, she said, was that a predecessor of hers as executive director was a member of a different denomination who had succeeded in building a lot of interest in Our Saviour’s work with the homeless among parishes of that denomination. While that interest was welcome, she said, “it was important to me to lift up and reclaim our Lutheran roots because we are the only Lutheran church in the state providing emergency shelter.”
Recognition of that role came last spring when the Minneapolis Area Synod of the ELCA designated Our Saviour’s Housing as one of 11 “co-ministries” of the synod. It is the synod’s response to services needed by the homeless, particularly emergency shelters.
Aslaksen describes the current program at Our Saviour’s as a “high-expectation shelter program.” The staff deals mainly with newly homeless persons, and everyone who comes to the emergency shelter building at 2219 Chicago gets a bed and is offered a rent-free 30-day stay. It is mandatory for those who accept the 30-day package to work with a professional case manager in looking for a new or better-paying job; building up savings so they’ll be able to pay the initial costs when they find housing of their own; and engaging in a search for housing.
Persons making progress toward these goals can have their stay extended to a maximum of 90 days. Aslaksen says she’s never sorry to see the longer stays because records show that the longer people stay at the shelter the better the chances are that they’ll find housing in a more traditional setting when they leave Our Saviour’s.
The emergency shelter and main administrative offices of Our Saviour’s Housing are located in a former doctors’ clinic that has been remodeled to include dormitory-like two- and four-bed rooms, toilet and shower facilities, washing and drying machines, a kitchen and a community dining room.
Homeless persons can begin signing up for beds in mid-afternoon, and the shelter is open from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. The facility is full to its capacity of 34 adult men and 6 adult women every night year round, and some persons must be turned away every night.
Those residents of the emergency shelter who show good progress in working toward their goals with a case manager but need more time to achieve them all, and who probably already have some type of employment that enables them to pay rent, may apply for longer-term housing in one of the three “transitional housing” facilities run by Our Saviour’s.
These quarters are West-wood House and Normandale House, north of the church on Chicago Avenue, and St. Stephen Residence on Portland.
Westwood Lutheran of St. Louis Park and St. Stephen Lutheran of Bloomington took active roles in rehabilitating the residences bearing their names. Normandale Lutheran of Edina set up a housing corporation that purchased and owns the triplex named for that congregation, and its pastoral staff and parish members are heavily involved in working for successful outcomes with the families residing there.
All three are ELCA congregations.
Westwood House has a capacity of six adult single women; St. Stephen provides quarters for 10 adult single men; and Normandale House is home to three families with children. Residents of these three buildings occupy them for a one-year period, which can be extended; the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Devel-opment will provide funds for up to 24 months. Those living in these houses have their own locked bedrooms and share kitchen and dining facilities.
Aslaksen acknowledges that a little over half of the 1,000 homeless who came to Our Saviour’s during 2001 declined to take part in its “high-expectations” program and stayed just one night. But she says that the stable, high-quality professional staff the church has assembled, the good reputation the program enjoys in the Minneapolis community and the word spreading among the homeless that Our Saviour’s is “a pretty good place to stay” will help in efforts to cut into the number of one-night-only residents in the future.
The director also offers one reason the statistics indicating a high number of one-night-only residents may be misleading. Each night Our Saviour’s holds out one bed that the big overflow crowd at the shelter at St. Stephen’s Roman Catholic Church at 2211 Clinton Avenue can obtain through a lottery there. The homeless coming to St. Stephen’s who do not win the lottery are sent to the shelters funded and operated by Hennepin County at 519 Portland Avenue and 1010 Currie Avenue. After these county facilities are filled there are still 500 persons left to fend for themselves outdoors each night in Minneapolis, according to Aslaksen.
With its emphasis on accountability, the Our Savi-our’s housing program is beginning to see more of the working poor than the long-term homeless at its door, the director said. These tend to be people with middle-class sensibilities who have run into difficult situations in their lives but have the ability to wade through the problems and eventually succeed.
Aslaksen takes pride in the fact that because of the Our Saviour’s program, “sixty-eight people are not sleeping on the street each night.” But, she admits, “Now we’re a program for the working poor and that’s a shame.” She said she looks forward to the time when Our Saviour’s Housing can again be a place for those with deep, ingrained needs, such as mental illness and chemical dependency.
The 14-member board of the program, along with the staff and executive director, have embarked on a long-range planning effort this year. The board includes four representatives from Our Saviour’s Church, one of whom is Senior Pastor Hans Lee; seven from other Lutheran congregations in the Minne-apolis area; and three non-Lutherans, including Chairper-son Helen Lockhart of St. Luke Episcopal Church.
Asked what she hopes will come out of that initiative, Aslaksen replied, “We need to grow, we need to do more.”
She pointed out that of the dozen churches that launched programs for the homeless 20 years ago, only three are left — Our Saviour’s, St. Stephen’s Roman Catholic and Simpson United Methodist. ”The other two do more [than we do] and it’s time for us to step up to the plate and take on more because the needs are huge … I see us opening more shelters and more housing. Whether it’s transitional or permanent supportive housing, we need to be doing more.”
As for putting an end to the phenomenon of homelessness, Aslaksen believes the key is construction of affordable housing. There’s been a “disconnect” between what people can earn and what it costs to have their own place to live in this community, she says. “The lack of entry-level housing for singles is huge,” she declares, and there’s a big need for efficiency and one-bedroom apartments at affordable prices.
To get the type of housing needed by low-income persons and those recovering from mental illnesses or addiction problems, the public is going to have to accept the need for small residential facilities with rent subsidies and, in some cases, recovery support services scattered throughout the metro area and integrated with other types of housing, she thinks.
With such subsidies, Aslak-sen believes, these people can live successfully in the community. The current alternative of allowing low-income people and those needing on-site recovery supports to become homeless, and having to pay for the services of police departments, emergency rooms and jails to deal with them, is more expensive (to say nothing of being immoral and unjust) than is providing small income supports for rent, Aslaksen believes. The present system is “poor public policy,” she asserts.