Downtown congregations band together to fight homelessness

Share this:
October 11, 2010
By: Amy Lyon
Amy Lyon

There’s a paradigm shift occurring in Minneapolis that showcases a not-so-traditional partnership between church and state.

Businesses are seeking the support of churches in fund-raising efforts. Churches are supporting the 10-year-plan to end homelessness created by Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis. Citizens are gathering at forums organized in part by homeless people to learn what it means to live without basic needs. And all of this is happening in the name of transitioning from managing to ending homelessness.

“There are 300 communities across the country that have 10-year plans like Hennepin County,” said Matthew Ayres, assistant coordinator for the Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness. “But there is no community I know of that has the faith-based component.”

That faith-based component is the Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness (DCEH), an interfaith coalition of 13 congregations that formed in 2009 by hiring Heidi Johnson McAllister as its congregational organizer. The DCEH’s mission — right up there with advocacy, education and building relationships — is to support the 10-year plan called Heading Home Hennepin (HHH).

Within its 80-pages, HHH offers an educational look at homelessness and its history in Hennepin County, outlines goals and recommendations, and tackles the topic of financing strategies for such a large-scale operation.

“It’s really amazing all of the different groups that are coming together to work on this,” said McAllister. “It’s a coordinated effort and it’s really powerful. We’re united in a common goal.”

Interfaith coalition

The 13 churches that have joined the DCEH run the gamut: Lutheran, Unitarian, Methodist, Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian and non-denominational.

“We also have a Jewish temple and two mosques as members,” said McAllister. “It’s rewarding to learn about different people’s beliefs and perspectives. It’s challenging sometimes, too, to be on the same page.”

Despite their differences, the churches find common ground in monthly meetings for the senior clergy, and meetings for steering and interfaith committee members. During the meetings, members share ideas, discuss advocacy, and brainstorm ways to educate or raise funds.

“For the last two years, each fall, we’ve set aside time in our congregations to talk about homelessness,” said McAllister. “There have been discussions on affordable housing, mental health, photography exhibits, films and forums. Last year over 1,000 people attended the forums.”

Congregations are encouraged to set up “Take 5 Tables” on Sundays to teach congregants about advocacy opportunities related to homelessness and poverty. And last session, members made more than 1,000 contacts to legislative advocates.

“Some wrote letters, e-mails or made phone calls,” McAllister said. “We make it a point to contact legislators at least three-to-four times per session.”

Another event organized by the DCEH in conjunction with zAmya Theater Group was a “Panhandling” forum at the Basilica of St. Mary during which homeless and previously homeless individuals spoke to the group of more than 300 about options and alternatives to giving homeless people money.

Affordable housing

At the core of ending homelessness, McAllister said, is the need for permanent and affordable housing.

The national affordable housing benchmark is defined as not exceeding 33 percent of a person’s income.

“There are folks on the low end of the wage scale who don’t have access to affordable housing opportunities,” said McAllister. “Many people are paying 50 percent and over of their income for housing. We may not be able to control the economic situation, but we can control the availability of affordable housing.”

Additionally, McAllister highlighted the importance of permanent support with a case worker in addition to affordable housing.

“The case worker would connect with the individual on a weekly basis, make sure they’re taking their meds, getting enough food, and would make sure they’re moving on in life and getting connected with job opportunities,” said McAllister. “It’s important to have intensive services for people who are long-term homeless, mentally ill or who have drug addictions.”

The DCEH joined individuals, agencies and businesses last winter to raise just over $350,000 in five months for the Currie Avenue Partnership. The initiative provided for the hiring of 10 case workers to connect with people living on the street who have mental or physical disabilities. Each case worker was expected to work with 15 clients, and help the homeless individuals find housing and become stable. 

The 10 case managers were hired over the summer and, to date, have placed 80-plus individuals in housing.

“It is estimated that 150 people will be in housing by November,” said Ayers. “And, the disabled individuals are eligible for a state subsidy, which will cover the cost of their case workers. So, the $350,000 was a one-time fee to get 150 people off the street.”

Housing vs. homelessness?

On any given night, approximately 1,500 single homeless adults seek shelter in Hennepin County, according to a quarterly shelter survey conducted by the Minnesota Department of Human Services. Another 600 families and 1,250 children are homeless. Moreover, local shelters can only house about 1,000 people. So what happens to the rest of the individuals?

“They sleep on the streets and under bridges,” McAllister said, noting that she doesn’t readily accept the justification that there will always be people who choose homelessness.

“If you look back at the history of homelessness, there has been some semblance of homelessness since World War II,” said McAllister. “But there are over 13,000 homeless people in Minnesota. Maybe there will always be a small percentage of people who are homeless, but I think we can do better as people called to faith. We should do better.”

McAllister said that having the resources to continually connect with those people is important. “With enough continuous contact, I think those long-term homeless people could be prodded.”

Just as important, Ayres said, is educating the public on the cost of housing versus homelessness.

“We have the numbers to back up the claims that housing is less expensive than homelessness,” said Ayres. “We can save an average of $13,000 per year by switching a person from bad services to good services.”

Ayers defined bad services as jails, detox facilities, emergency rooms and shelters, and good services as housing and medical care.

“Transitioning services actually saves taxpayers money,” he said.

Amy Lyon is a freelancer based in Prior Lake.

Get involved

Welcome baskets
The DCEH is sponsoring a drive to collect “welcome baskets” full of cleaning supplies to those that are newly housed through the Currie Avenue Partnership. Fill a laundry basket with the following new items: 2 pack of paper towels, 4 pack of toilet paper, 1 bottle of liquid dish soap, 2 sponges, 1 dish towel, 2 hot pads, box of garbage bags, broom and dustpan, mop, 1 bottle of non-toxic all purpose cleaner, 1 container of laundry detergent. Contact Annie at or 767-9219 with questions and to arrange to drop-off completed baskets.

Do you know how to fix a bike?

The DCEH Bike Program is in need of volunteers with bike repair skills to fix donated bikes that will be given out at outreach centers. Contact Benita Warns at or 651-641-1037 for more information and to sign up to volunteer.

More information

For more information on the Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness (DCEH), visit To view the HHH 10-year plan, visit