A mission fulfilled

Out back the shelter provides a spacious, large enough for seventeen to have a snowball fight last winter, fenced in yard for all seasons.

Gretchen brings out beverages, milk and water, for dinner. Earlier she was helping with cleaning.

Mady Parker, volunteer and cook, has prepared a chicken casserole and rice for dinner and volunteer Lynne Croes helps in the kitchen, unloading the dishwasher. Mady is often accompanied by her children who also love to help out and play with the children.

Volunteer Lynne Croes checks out the dinner cooked for the evening meal at the shelter at Guardian Angels Church. Cherry pie and lemon meringue pie will be dessert.

Operations and Volunteer Coordinator Mike Fouts brings out “Skittles,” one of the donated vintage games that has been popular with the residents.

Homeless shelter started by local church serves 48 families in its first year

Nearly one year after its opening, a homeless shelter to serve suburban families is going strong.

“Hope for the Journey Home,” a facility in Oakdale that provides shelter for families experiencing homelessness in suburban Washington and Ramsey counties, opened in September of 2012.

The effort is a partnership between Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Oakdale and St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi. The two congregations have been joined by more than 30 churches throughout the metro area that volunteer to staff the shelter for certain weeks during the year.

The shelter is housed in the former rectory at Guardian Angels, and those residents who aren’t already employed or in school, go to St. Andrew’s between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to work on their employment applications or housing searches.

Since opening, the shelter has served 48 families -- a total of 161 people -- with help from 1,100 different volunteers. The typical stay at the shelter lasts about three weeks, but there is no limit on how long families can stay if they’re making progress towards the goals they set with St. Andrew’s, said operations and volunteer coordinator Mike Fouts.

Hiring Fouts was just one of several changes that have been made since the shelter first opened, said Cheryl Peterson, justice and outreach coordinator at Guardian Angels Church.

She added that organizers have tried to improve the shelter’s operations in other ways, and in addition to a full-time coordinator they have even hired a cook so volunteers no longer have to worry about getting acclimated to the kitchen when making meals every night.

The building is located next to Guardian Angels Church and once housed the priests assigned to the parish. The rectory had been vacant for a few years, and was used for occasional small gatherings and meetings.

When they learned that Washington County did not have a shelter for families experiencing temporary homelessness, the parishioners decided the former rectory could serve a better purpose.

Volunteers and church employees spent last summer refurbishing the large house to accommodate east metro families in need of shelter.

Peterson and Fouts said that although opening a homeless shelter has been quite a learning process for those spearheading the effort, they’ve been impressed with how many churches have stepped up to help. Staffing a homeless shelter 365 days a year takes a significant amount of volunteer time, Peterson said, and help from the other 30-plus churches has been appreciated.

“The issue belongs to all of us,” Peterson added. “The more that we can have other communities of faith partner with us on this, the better.”

Changing perceptions

Fouts noted that he was uncertain as to what to expect when he was hired last December to coordinate the shelter’s operations, but said he has been thoroughly “impressed” by all of the families who walk through the door.

“I think a lot of people have some preconceived notions on homelessness, or the families it affects, or the reasons for homelessness,” Fouts said. “What really struck me is that these are families that are essentially my next-door neighbors (and) the kids that my kids go to school with.”

And as a former teacher, Fouts said he has been especially impressed by the children of the families served.

“The kids are incredibly intelligent,” he added.

There are a variety of reasons why families who come to the Hope for the Journey Home shelter may have found themselves homeless, Fouts said. Several that recently came to the shelter were caught off guard when a St. Paul apartment they were living in was condemned, leaving them with nowhere to go.

And in another case, a parent who’d been employed steadily for 15 years was unable to find work after being laid off because the department she had previously worked for was outsourced.

Other times, evictions and mortgage foreclosures led families who’ve never faced homelessness to be thrown into an unfamiliar, terrifying situation.

“A lot of times families are just kind of petrified or paralyzed by not knowing what to do, and rather than being able to work toward something to when the foreclosure occurs, they don’t have anything planned,” Fouts said

Sometimes, families in the shelter may consist of parents who are working but still unable to make ends meet, Fouts said, noting that between 20 and 22 percent of the families served by the shelter have two parents in the household and just under half of those families have a parent who is already employed.

And though Fouts said it has been a blessing to be able to help some families who were down on their luck for various reasons get back on their feet, he added that there have been some challenges in the past few month, some of them space related.

The shelter has seven rooms, and some eligible families haven’t been able to take advantage of the shelter because there just wasn’t sufficient room.

In addition to space challenges, Fouts said it has been a challenge for Guardian Angels to learn about all the resources that area available to the families it serves, adding that St. Andrew’s has been an invaluable help with those kinds of items.

“A lot of families can get immobilized because there are so many questions,” Fouts said. “St. Andrew’s really pulls all those strings together.”

In addition to receiving help in their job and housing search, Fouts noted that staff and volunteers also encourage socialization among families who stay at the Hope for the Journey Home Shelter.

“We think it’s important not to withdraw into themselves and fall into depression,” Fouts said, adding that families often appreciate being able to talk to others in their same situation and have in several instances formed strong friendships amongst themselves. In certain cases, families have passed along job tips to other families, and even provided housing to other families at the shelter once they’ve secured it for themselves.

“I think that’s one of the biggest benefits we offer is that psychological and positive effect,” Fouts said.

In addition to helping local homeless families, Peterson added that she believes the shelter has had an impact, though unintended, on the Guardian Angels parish as well.

“We have had people coming back, some people who may not have been active in Guardian Angels in a long time,” Peterson said. “They have come back because they want to be a part of a church that’s living out the Gospel call. It feels good to work together. It’s a church they want to be a part of.”

Fouts said the help of Guardian Angels parishioners, other local churches and youth groups including the Woodbury Key Club, Brownie troops, the Minnesota 36ers girls basketball group, and others, has been much appreciated. He added that he believes their involvement has also helped change volunteers’ perspectives on homelessness as well.

“We feel that 50 percent of our mission is helping people understand the magnitude of the challenges, and that it’s normal families (who are unexpectedly homeless). The best way to do that is to bring people in,” Fouts said.

Others lend a hand

Kim May began volunteering with the Hope for the Journey Home shelter through her church, Rockpoint Church in Lake Elmo, and said she is passionate about helping homeless families because she can personally relate to them.

May said she spent time in a shelter years ago before eventually securing permanent housing.

“I knew what it was like,” she said, adding that she has been pleased to see how the Hope for the Journey Home shelter has assisted struggling families. “I know both sides of it, and it’s helped so many families.”

May said she has also been pleased to see some families who initially only keep to themselves open up, and that she has occasionally shared with them her own experience of being homeless.

“I may say, ‘I’ve been there; I know what you’re going through; I know it’s not easy.’ They seem to be able to relate to me real well.

“I’ve seen some families very appreciative of what we’re doing for them and how we’re helping them,” May said. “Circumstances come up when you lose your job or fall behind on a house payment. Those things happen.”

Fouts added that the Hope for the Journey Home shelter can always use more volunteers, and that those looking for more information can email him at mfouts@guardian-angels.org, visit guardian-angels.org and click on the link for more information on the shelter, or find the Hope for the Journey Home shelter on Facebook. Volunteers are required to undergo a background check, he added.

Financial contributions to help support the shelter’s day-to-day operations are also appreciated, Fouts said, and proceeds from the Guardian Angels Fall Festival (to be held Sept. 13-15) will also help support the shelter.

Alex Holmquist can be reached at aholmquist@lillienews.com or 651-748-7822.

Celebration event

The Hope for the Journey Home shelter will be hosting a special celebratory event Monday, Sept. 23, at Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Oakdale. The event will take in Peter O’ Neill Hall from 6 to 8 p.m.
Cheryl Peterson, justice and outreach coordinator for Guardian Angels Church, said the event will celebrate the homeless shelter’s first “birthday.”  The program will include light refreshments and highlight the shelter’s accomplishments during its first year in operation.
The event is open to the public.


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