In cold weather, church becomes temporary shelter

Community of Grace Lutheran Church members Gary Johnson, Lynne Hagen, Kathy Nelson and Carole Hennig display items they keep in their warehouse to give to those who stay at the church’s temporary shelter — items such as blankets, towels and toiletries.

WHITE BEAR LAKE — About 20 guests file into Community of Grace Lutheran Church on a bus from St. Paul each evening, back home for the night.

The church, located just off Highway 61 in White Bear Lake, hosts Project Home, a traveling shelter, every December. It rotates to other churches across Ramsey County every month of the year. Two churches host each month.

Hosting the shelter takes about 200 shifts of volunteers, said church member Lynne Hagen. She volunteers in the evening to prepare snacks, greet the guests and play with the children. Gary Johnson is an overnight host. He ensures the building stays safe overnight and prepares breakfast. He's been volunteering for 10 years and stays overnight at the church many nights each December.

“I usually sleep on a couch,” he said, motioning to the couches in the church community-room-turned-shelter, “or a cot, like the guests.” Guests sleep on cots behind partitions in the community room or in other rooms that have been transformed into a temporary shelter.

In the morning, the guests are bused to the Project Home Day Center in St. Paul, said Donna Franklin, senior site coordinator. From there, children get on their bus to go to wherever they were attending school before they became homeless. Most shelter clients have children. Parents either go to work or search for jobs at the day center.

The day center, located in First Baptist Church downtown St. Paul, was just opened this fall. It provides a place where parents can work toward stability. Meals, laundry and showers are provided on site, and clients are provided with support toward employment and finding stable housing.

Clients are referred to Project Home through Ramsey County. Common client causes for homelessness include home foreclosures or losing a job, Franklin said. There is no time limit on how long clients can stay at the traveling shelter, but they usually stay for an average of three months.

Project Home, a program of Interfaith Action of Greater Saint Paul, has been using the model of a traveling shelter at churches since it began 20 years ago. The volunteers provided by each church reduce the cost of staff that would be needed to operate the shelter.

Carole Hennig said she volunteers out of empathy. “I do it because I feel we are all one or two paychecks away from this happening to us,” she said. “None of us is above this.” Hagen concurs. She went through a time when she was close to needing an emergency shelter when she was evicted from a home.

Volunteers enjoy meeting the guests and playing with their children. They hang out with the teens and help them work on job interviewing skills. “I think they give as much to us as we give to them,” Johnson said.

Volunteering at the church shelter is an option that is open to anyone in the community, Johnson said; volunteers don't have to be a member of the church to participate.

The day center is also in need of volunteers on an ongoing basis. Volunteers are also needed to move cots and supplies from church to church each month. For more information, visit interfaithaction.org/programs/projecthome/.

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