This is not luxury housing: just studio apartments, each with a bathroom and enough space to sleep and cook. For the 44 new tenants who moved in this fall – young adults who previously were homeless – the new Prior Crossing development in St. Paul, which opened in November, is exactly what they need: affordable housing, clean and new, close to public transportation and ready before cold weather sets in.
Getting from a dream to this reality took a long time – starting with $500,000 that House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul committed five years ago at Easter to launch a housing initiative for homeless youth, although the specifics weren’t clear then.
“There was no guarantee anything would happen,” said David Van Dyke, House of Hope’s pastor. But “it’s hard to argue when a congregation steps up like that in a big way. It got people’s attention, and it got other people involved.”
At its heart, this is not really the story of how one big congregation gave a big gift and made something happen. It’s much more an image of what energy percolates when people of faith work hard to identify community needs, then join with others in partnership to see what they can learn and accomplish together.
It’s also been a faith journey for people like Eric Adams, a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. Adams says he “never would have predicted” he’d become so involved in working with the homeless.
“Professionally, I am an electrical engineer, but my faith led me in this direction,” he said. “I’m doing things that I never would have expected, and it’s with a sense of purpose and joy. So that’s not all bad.”
Based on physical counts of the homeless that volunteers conduct every three years, on any given night in Minnesota an estimated minimum of 4,000 young people are homeless. They include 2,200 teenagers ages 17 and younger, according to a report from the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.
The reasons are complicated. More than half of the homeless young people report having been abused physically or sexually, or being neglected. “Youth experiencing homelessness have often experienced serious upheaval before reaching adulthood, including conflict with parents, abusive relationships, turbulent housing and mental health problems,” the report states.
Among the state’s homeless youths, 60 percent have at least one parent who’s been incarcerated. Some were told by their parents to leave, or were locked out. About 70 percent are persons of color, even though only about a quarter of Minnesota youth are persons of color. Close to a third are parents themselves. Of those who identify as LGBTQ (about 15 percent of the youth homeless population), nearly 30 percent identify their sexual orientation as being a contributing factor to their becoming homeless. Some are being released from foster care because they’ve turned 18, and they have nowhere to go.
Homeless youth often hide in plain sight
“When you talk to schools, most of the big school districts around here have a homeless liaison,” said Kris Berggren, content specialist with Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, which is developing the Prior Crossings project. “They know the kids in their buildings who are experiencing homelessness, who are living in shelters or sleeping on someone’s couch. They know a lot of them, they might not know all of them.”
Some of those young people are in school or have jobs. “They’ll go to the public library and do their homework, or the mall food court,” Berggren said. “They look like any other teen … . A number of the young people who come into our housing have jobs … . They are holding together so much. They are resilient, and they are experiencing a lot of stress.”
Beacon Interfaith describes itself as an “interfaith collaborative of congregations ending homelessness through housing, shelter and advocacy.” Its work began in 1999 with one congregation, Plymouth Congregational Church, a large, well-to-do congregation in a Minneapolis neighborhood where the problem of homelessness was evident and persistent.
When a vacant nursing home across the street from the church became available, church leaders decided to work with the Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation, the precursor of Beacon, to develop Lydia Apartments, 40 efficiency apartments with supportive services for people who’d experienced chronic homelessness along with mental or physical disabilities, including chemical dependency and HIV-infection. That happened despite opposition from the neighborhood – including a lawsuit – and Lydia Apartments opened in 2003.
That project helped to create the model that Beacon still follows: providing affordable housing along with supportive services, with help from faith communities. The work since then has involved 17 housing developments supported by more than 80 congregations in the Twin Cities, including nine Presbyterian churches, Berggren said.
Westminster Presbyterian in downtown Minneapolis began working on affordable housing issues more than 20 years ago, said Adams, who first got involved working as a mentor to homeless clients. He later joined a committee from Westminster working more globally on issues of affordable housing. He said it spent most of a year “simply studying the issues surrounding affordable housing,” trying to understand the players, the funding, the needs.
Around that time, an affordable housing building came on the market. “It was being sold, and we could attempt to maintain it as affordable housing, or it would go to a market-rate developer,” Adams said. So Westminster stepped in, joining in partnership with Plymouth Congregational. The result was the Nicollet Square development, 42 studio apartments with supportive services for young people who have been homeless or are leaving the foster care system.
At times both Westminster and Plymouth have committed funds from their own capital campaigns specifically for affordable housing.
The latest project
The $500,000 that House of Hope committed to the Prior Crossing project came from an endowed fund for low-income housing, established in the early 1990s. Over the past 20 years, the congregation has given away more than $2 million to support low-income housing projects, usually in “dribs and drabs” to support worthwhile projects, Van Dyke said, and never before on this scale.
For House of Hope, Prior Crossing has been a five-year project. Near the beginning, Van Dyke asked Jack Sjoholm, a retired lawyer and congregation member, to co-chair a task force on youth homelessness. Along the way, Sjoholm, a 71-year-old retired corporate attorney, has spent countless days immersed in the work – meeting with architects and government officials, touring potential building sites, visiting centers that provide services for homeless people.
A lifelong Presbyterian, Sjoholm said his faith has grown stronger as he puts his beliefs into action. He’s also learning what he didn’t know about being homeless.
For example, Sjoholm visited a drop-in center for homeless youth in downtown St. Paul called Safe Zone, learning that it provides meals, a medical clinic, showers and storage lockers, “so you don’t go into a job interview carrying all your belongings in a plastic bag.” He’s discovered the importance of supportive services – help with things like transportation, job placement, education and mental health services – so residents can learn “they too can be successful … . They are getting a chance to live their own lives, rather than subsisting.”
The people who move into Prior Crossing may not stay long-term – with time, they may be ready for more independence and a bigger space, Van Dyk said. But for those wanting a place of their own, it’s a start. Although each apartment is tiny, “it’s clean,” Van Dyke said. “It’s decent. Sometimes when these kids first come in off the streets and see the room, they’re so overwhelmed they’re scared to sleep there at first. It’s so quiet it scares them. These stories – you just can’t imagine what these kids have been through.”
Along the way, Presbyterians involved in this work have found it taking them to unexpected places. They also stress that this kind of community involvement is not only for big congregations with deep pockets. Much of it is being done in partnership – with roles to play for individuals and for small churches willing to make a difference.
In community outreach, the exact issue in which a congregation gets involved may vary, depending on local needs and the gifts and experiences of a particular church. But here’s some of what Presbyterians in the Twin Cities have learned from their work with teen homelessness that may translate to other settings:
The importance of partnership. The Prior Crossing project wasn’t a go-it-alone effort for House of Hope. This is a project with $11.29 million in public funding, including support from the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency ($8.8 million), the St. Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority ($1.1 million), the Metropolitan Council ($927,000) and more, according to Berggren.
“Certainly no one congregation could do this on their own,” Van Dyke said. “To me, this reinforced the need to find those people in our communities who are already doing good work, and to partner with them. We’re stronger together … .
They are the experts in low-income housing; we are not. A congregation can find the people who are doing really great work, and partner with them” – sometimes drawing in other congregations as well.
While the idea of taking on a big mission commitment can be scary, “you don’t have to do it all by yourself,” said Adams, the housing advocate from Westminster church. “Find friends and partners who can amplify your ability. And also don’t be afraid to learn from those friends and partners.”
Stewardship. In several of these projects, congregations raised money through their capital campaigns – making a commitment that some of the funds raised would be used for community work.
A focus on policy. In addition to providing seed money for the project, House of Hope parishioners became advocates seeking more public funding for housing and services for those who are homeless. Sometimes House of Hope would arrange transportation from the church to take people to community meetings on the issue, hoping to show public officials or city leaders how much support there was for the work. Van Dyke saw “80-year-old women from the congregation getting on the bus to ride over to Minneapolis to sit in a high school gym and let their voices be heard about homeless youth. It’s really been amazing and inspiring.”
More than 200 people from House of Hope signed up to be Beacon Citizens, to write letters, to attend meetings and try to persuade elected officials to provide more funding for housing for homeless youth, Sjoholm said. When they asked for volunteers, dozens would come forward, saying: “This is what church should be doing.”
A few surprises. For as long as House of Hope has existed, a group of women from the congregation have met to sew, Van Dyke said. They’ve made bandages in wartime, baby blankets and more, but “were kind of on the verge of dying out,” with fewer and fewer participating. So the women decided, as one last project, to make 44 blankets for the new residents of Prior Crossing, and then to disband.
Support for the project was so strong, however, that more people began showing up to sew – adults and teenagers, giving the sewing group new life. The blankets were dedicated during a worship service in June and now the group “has no intention of quitting,” Van Dyke said.
The needs continue. So the work goes on.
Sydney Reuben, 19, grew up experiencing homelessness, living at times in shelters with her mother, then in a youth shelter on her own. She is determined to follow a different path — to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness — and Nicollet Square gave her a platform to dream bigger.
She held an internship at Butter Bakery Café, a popular neighborhood coffee shop on the ground level of Nicollet Square. Butter, as it’s known, is a WorkFast partner offering Nicollet Square youth entry-level jobs for three to six months so they can gain job skills and experience. Several have been hired full-time while Sydney and others have moved on to other jobs. The customer service skills Sydney honed there helped her get a job that pays well at a large cable company’s customer service call department.
Because she could pay an affordable rent at Nicollet Square, Sydney saved money. Because she had a quiet place to do her homework, Sydney has completed four semesters at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and plans to transfer to a four-year school to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing.
Using skills she learned at Nicollet Square, Sydney recently moved into an apartment in suburban Minneapolis. “I know where I come from, and I know what I need to succeed,” Sydney said. “I’ve really come a long way.”
— Kris Berggren, Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative
Jamal learned English quickly after arriving in the United States at 12 and did well in high school. But when he was just 16 his father moved back to Ethiopia, their country of origin, for medical reasons, leaving Jamal and his siblings to make their own way.
“At that age you still need support,” Jamal said. While living with another family for a while, then on his own, he faltered and felt uncertain about his future. Arriving at Nicollet Square, he found a place to clear his head.
Today Jamal, 21, earns $12 an hour as a part-time assisted living aide – good preparation for the health care career he seeks – while attending Minneapolis Community and Technical College with plans to major in nursing.
“To study you need a quiet place. Coming here, that is one big weight off my shoulders. There is less to worry about,” he said. “Everyone is kind and wants the best for you.”
Despite the hardships he’s faced, Jamal is very grateful for the educational opportunities available to him here. Nicollet Square’s affordable rent also allows him to stretch his budget, even saving some money to send to his parents back home.
“Having a stable place to live means having a peaceful state of mind,” he said. “Nicollet Square is a place to focus and work on rebuilding myself.”
— Kris Berggren, Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative