Emergency homeless shelter opens at First Covenant Church

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January 3, 2011 // UPDATED 9:07 am - January 3, 2011
By: Amy Lyon
Amy Lyon
With the first flurries of the December snowstorm and warnings of an impending snow emergency, First Covenant Church in downtown Minneapolis swung open its doors to welcome 50 men and women into its emergency homeless shelter.

The welcoming came mere hours after the Minneapolis City Council approved an interim use permit on Friday, Dec. 10 for the church’s lower level Fellowship Hall to operate as a shelter.

“This is an exciting opportunity for First Covenant Church to serve those in need in our community,” said First Covenant Pastor Dan Collison. “This shelter experience has the potential to be really engaging. It can bring us to life.”


This fall, Minneapolis-area homeless care providers faced the reality that they “couldn’t stay ahead of the economic times,” said Stephen Horsfield, chief operating officer at The Salvation Army. “The shelters are full and we have people sleeping in hallways and chairs when no beds are available.”

So, homeless advocates pleaded with Hennepin County and, in response, commissioners released $117,000 for the operating costs of another shelter site.

In November, First Covenant, located at the corner of Chicago and 7th Street South, was approached by a coalition of homeless care providers looking for a temporary site to house 50 people until the end of April 2011, according to Collison.

“The homeless situation is so dire that Hennepin County released funds for a new shelter operation site to be hosted by a church,” said Collison, noting that according to Minneapolis’ zoning code, a homeless shelter can only be opened in a religious facility.

The leadership and congregation of First Covenant Church accepted the invitation and, in a flurry of activity, worked with the city of Minneapolis to complete the necessary applications and paperwork to obtain an interim use permit.

 “There are a lot of hoops to go through with the city to use a space for something other than what it was originally designed for,” said Horsfield.

In the partnership, Hennepin County will pay for operations, The Salvation Army will provide staff and organizational support, and the First Covenant community will offer space and volunteer help.

Outpouring of support

 “Over the last month, the congregation and college students from neighboring schools have collected more than 185 blankets and more than 375 pairs of socks for the guests,” said Jen Ptacek, one of the lead volunteer coordinators for First Covenant. “I think many people want to help, but they don’t always know how to get started, so we try to organize opportunities for them.”

Two staff members from The Salvation Army will be on site at the First Covenant shelter, along with two evening volunteers and a morning volunteer.

“Volunteer responsibilities include greeting guests, helping with check-in and check-out, serving meals, socializing with guests and connecting them to resources when necessary,” said Ptacek.

Bed assignments for the First Covenant shelter are assigned at The Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center where there are 350 beds.

 “There won’t be any need for guests to line up for beds outside of First Covenant and there won’t be a lottery,” said Horsfield, noting that First Covenant will serve as a “relief valve” for the shelter system.

The shelter will operate seven days a week from 6 p.m. until 7 a.m. Guests will move toward other support services during the day like House of Charity two blocks away or Catholic Charities Opportunity Center seven blocks away.

The First Covenant shelter opened on the heels of the new Opportunity Center located at 740 17th St. E. in the Elliot Park neighborhood.

The daytime community center provides a place for single, homeless adults to connect with resources to move toward self-sufficiency. Services include breakfast and lunch, laundry, showers, lockers, employment assistance, health clinic, haircuts, transition support, veteran’s outreach, and access to Hennepin County workers who screen for county benefits, shelter, mental health services, medical and other programs.

The center also offers mail services in which individuals can use the Opportunity Center address to receive mail, as well as a free voicemail system.

The walk-in community center was formerly known as Branch III, and expanded its services in October 2010.

What next?

The money allocated from Hennepin County will allow the shelter at First Covenant to remain open through April 30, 2011. Ideally, homeless care providers would like to see enough homeless individuals moved into permanent housing between now and then, which would allow for more open beds in the existing shelter spaces.

 “I don’t anticipate that things will get better in the next two years,” said Mikkel Beckman, executive director of St. Stephens Human Services. “The only way we’re going to get across this desert is to invite people to walk with us.”

Amy Lyon is a freelancer based in Prior Lake.