Faith communities respond to homelessness in the deep suburbs
Homeless people in five counties on the northern fringe of the Twin Cities metro area have a “faith-based” helping hand with housing, as well as resources to avoid falling back into homelessness. Fifteen churches in Isanti county and one in Chisago county — six of them Lutheran — are partners in the program. Some might find the program and its location surprising since many folks view homelessness as a strictly urban problem.
New Pathways Inc., an affiliate of Interfaith Hospitality Network, operates out of headquarters in Cambridge, Minnesota, serving Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs, and Pine counties. The goal is to provide families with assistance in finding appropriate housing and developing skills so that they succeed and thrive. Among the opportunities to learn are: budgeting skills, parenting skills, job skills, healthy living skills, independent living skills, and good tenant/good neighbor skills, according to Mary Ann Westlund, Program Manager/Family Educator. Participants must be “clean and sober” for 30 days to be eligible.
Westlund says the program helps people, many of whom have been “couch hoppers,” staying with friends and relatives. She says, “Some have lived in ice fishing houses, school buses, tents (during warmer weather), and abandoned houses.” Referrals to the program come from police who notice people hanging out at the local Wal-Mart store, the only major business open 24 hours a day. County welfare workers and people who have been through the New Pathways program also make referrals.
Westlund said, “Housing costs are a major issue in the Cambridge area. Housing costs are driven by Twin Cities rates, but local job opportunities pay on a much lower scale, making it difficult for families to obtain affordable housing.” During its 2006-2007 fiscal year New Pathways served 62 families including 87 adults and 122 children.
Despite their efforts, the program has turned away 120 families in the past year due to operating at capacity.
Westlund said the program theme is “We don’t just help families find housing,…we help them so they never need our help again.”
Help includes providing shelter for homeless families with children by partnering with area churches. One week each quarter of the year, participating churches convert Sunday school rooms to house families overnight, setting up cots—-private sleeping accommodations for one family per room—-and meals.
During the day, program participants go to work, school, or New Pathways’ family day center in Cambridge. The center provides a computer lab with internet access for job search, video games for children, telephone, and mail slots (providing participants with a mailing address). There are also shower facilities, laundry equipment, and a kitchen for lunches.
Since the program began in September 2000, New Pathways has served more than 700 homeless people, about half of them children.
Members of six Lutheran congregations are among the more than 450 volunteers who are on hand to help. Those partner congregations are Cambridge (Cambridge), Faith (Isanti), Joy (Cambridge), Long Lake (Isanti), Siloa (Braham), and Trinity (North Branch) churches. Baptist, Evangelical Free, Methodist, and Roman Catholic churches are also among the program partners. Westlund said volunteers are critical to the success of the program, sharing their time, talents, and treasure. Volunteers have given 25,000 hours to the program since it was started.
Volunteers are needed at the family day center and at the churches to help with cooking meals, cleaning, and hosting families, as well as with maintenance, family activities, and driving. And community financial backing is required before government and foundation funding will be granted.
New Pathways is particularly proud that the organization received a 2007 Best Practices Award from the Governor’s Council on Faith and Community Service Initiatives. The presentation to Cheryl Gray, executive director, and the staff recognized New Pathways’ work in providing three meals a day, hospitality, and private sleeping accommodations for families in its service area.
New Pathways also has an operation in Brainerd, Minnesota, serving Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd, and Wadena counties. New Pathways can serve six families each at its Cambridge and Brainerd locations. Average family size is three and the average stay is 37 days. There’s a transitional housing duplex located in Isanti, Minnesota, that serves two families. Westlund says the program, which has a 70% success rate, would also like to be able to offer some affordable housing units as program participants move on from transitional housing.
The program’s average cost per family served is $61 per day. In addition to financial support, New Pathways looks for donations of serviceable automobiles, which are turned over to program participants who lack transportation. Westlund said, “We need donations of cars that don’t need major repair work, though we have a volunteer mechanic who works with us.”
Additional information about the program is available at: www.newpath waysmn.com. Or, those interested may call Mary Ann Westlund at 763/691-0121 ext. 5 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.