Churches meet needs as county shelters fill upby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Homelessness has shot up during the recession and its aftermath.
The federal government estimates that the number of homeless families has increased by a 30 percent over the past three years.
The estimate in Minnesota is a 25 percent increase. The result is emergency shelters operated by counties are almost always full to overflowing.
Every night in Ramsey County, homeless families who can't find room at the county shelter in Maplewood are bused to a participating Project Home church.
Central Presbyterian in downtown St. Paul is one of them.
Project Home Director Sara Liegl says during the year 34 churches and synagogues each donate space seven nights a week for a month.
"For most churches, you've got choir practice on Wednesday night and then the lights go out," she said. "We've got great resources in the faith community with these buildings and you know people who are hurting that have no place to lay their heads that night."
Twenty people, parents and children, spend the night here in the church dining room sleeping on beds and mattresses in areas sectioned off by cardboard partitions.
The accommodations are a bit on the spare side, not much privacy, but the families are warm and safe.
There are snacks, games, movies and conversation along with volunteers who supervise the arrangements.
At Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul's Highland Park, another Project Home participant, families gather in a big room with a piano and a big screen TV.
Two teachers are on hand to help the school age kids with homework.
The Project Home staff don't want names of the people they help made public.
A mother with a child says if it weren't for the church's emergency family shelter she'd be living in her car.
"I thank the churches for letting us stay because they don't have to open up their house of god to us, it's like taking a risk," she said.
Claire Hoyum, Gloria Dei congregation president and former volunteer coordinator says, her understanding of what causes homelessness has changed.
"One event that may be completely outside their control can so affect their ability to provide stability for their families. . . And it's at times like these when I think if I were in that situation I'd want to know that the community is there to support me and as a member of the community I want to do that," Hoyum said.
Stays at Project Home churches average a few days to a couple weeks.
Director Sara Liegl says most of the overflow emergency shelter beds are full most of the time.
She says many of the families are first time homeless even though a number of the adults have jobs.
"These are all families who five years ago they were making it, they were doing just fine, probably missed a bill here or there but next month they'd get a couple extra hours on their paycheck and they'd make it up. The families we see now really struggle month to month just to barely make it," Liegl says.
Ramsey county will spend about $8 million this year helping people who are homeless.
Part of the money helps families find a place to live.
Depending on circumstances the county pays the deposit and even the first month's rent.
State budget cuts for homeless and other social services are likely as legislators deal with the state budget deficit.
One lawmaker suggests churches and other charities will be expected to do more to pick up the slack.
Gloria Dei shelter volunteer Dan Erlandson said he wonders if a volunteer effort can match the need.
"How do you do that in any kind of organized fashion that addresses a lot of need?" he said. "To me it's a larger issue than just a few congregations can address."
A survey last year by the St. Paul-based Wilder Center estimates more than 13,000 Minnesota residents are homeless each night. Just over a third are families.
Religious groups in several other Minnesota cities including Grand Rapids, Rochester and Anoka operate emergency family shelters as do churches in hundreds of other cities around the country.
An economic recovery will likely help more families get back on their feet and slow the rate of growth in demand for help.
However it's not clear that's begun happening, at least as measured by demand for Project Home emergency family shelter beds.
- Morning Edition, 12/22/2010, 7:20 a.m.