Local youth will sleep out to fight homelessness

The breadwinner of a local low-income family is laid off from their job. A couple months into the job search, the money is gone.
Family and friends help as they can, but what happens when the money to maintain their home just isn’t there?
There is nowhere for homeless people to go in this area, but a new non-profit organization, Great River Family Promise, is hoping to change that soon.

Youth members of the Community United Methodist Church gathered for their first Box City Event last year. They will be sleeping in boxes again this weekend to raise awareness of local homelessness and the area's new non-profit foundation that will serve homeless people, Great River Family Promise. Youth from St. Henry's Catholic Church and Resurrection Lutheran Church will also be holding Box City events this weekend.

Youth members of the Community United Methodist Church gathered for their first Box City Event last year. They will be sleeping in boxes again this weekend to raise awareness of local homelessness and the area’s new non-profit foundation that will serve homeless people, Great River Family Promise. Youth from St. Henry’s Catholic Church and Resurrection Lutheran Church will also be holding Box City events this weekend. (Submitted Photo)

While Great River Family Promise is new to the local community, the Family Promise organization they are affiliated with is not.
There are more than 170 networks across the United States, and they have a success rate of moving 76 percent of families into permanent or transitional housing in an average of 63 days.
If all goes as planned, Great River Family Promise can start serving families in our local area by January 2013.
Rather than the costly proposition of owning and operating their own shelter facility, Great River Family Promise’s director, Maggie Parish, said Family Promise affiliates rely on the space available in their partnering churches, each of which houses families in need for four weeks out of the year.
The host church volunteers provide dinner, a simple breakfast and the fixings for people to make bag lunches during their hosting weeks.
Space is limited to 14 people or four families, with families being housed together in smaller church rooms at night to allow some privacy.
“One of the key elements to Family Promise is keeping costs down as much as we can, and working with the entire community to help serve these homeless families,” Parish said.
The new Great River Family Promise encompasses the towns of Monticello, Big Lake and the Elk River school district cities of Elk River, Rogers, Otsego and Zimmerman in their service area, and so far 10 churches in these communities have signed on to become host sites out of the 13 needed to operate.
The Monticello churches participating include St. Henry’s Catholic Church and Resurrection Lutheran Church, with Trinity Lutheran Church acting as a support congregation.
Parish said they hope to be up and running in January, once they form partnerships with three more churches.
To help raise awareness for this cause, youth from St. Henry’s, Resurrection Lutheran and Community United Methodist Churches in Monticello will be holding Box City events this weekend, where they will forego the comforts of home for a night and instead sleep outside in cardboard boxes, giving them a small taste of what it’s like to be homeless.
Monticello High School freshman Anne Henderson took part in the event last year and she’s now gearing up for another night of box sleeping this weekend.
Last year, Henderson said event staff told the students how important cardboard boxes were to people who have no other sleeping option, and she said she could definitely see why at first, saying the group set up camp and felt pretty cozy for awhile. But by the middle of the night it was raining, and the group experienced firsthand the limitations of cardboard protection.
One big highlight of last year’s event, Henderson said, was having some formerly homeless people visit them to share their experiences with homelessness and how they overcame their situations.
“You learn to appreciate how much you have just by having a warm bedroom and a house,” Henderson said. “It’s really incredible.”
This was exactly the type of perspective local church leaders were hoping youth would gain by participating in a box city event, as well as a desire to help be a part of the solution. Staying in a box for one night gives teens a clearer picture of what it would be like to face this situation night after night, and Community United Methodist church leader Sally Narr said events like this allow people to come together to help avert potentially dangerous situations for children and families.
Though most people likely imagine homeless people living in a large metropolitan area, Parish said homelessness is a problem in this area. Though accurate tallies are quite difficult to come by, Parish said that at last count there were 79 students who are homeless among the area’s three school districts. They were able to obtain these numbers through data collected by the free and reduced school lunch program, but she said families usually try to hide their homeless status as much as they can. For one, she said they are obviously upset, sad and anxious over their family’s status, and many are deeply afraid of having their children taken away. Great River Family Promise, she said, will give homeless families a safe, warm place for them to sleep and receive meals, along with a day center located in a house owned by Elk River’s United Methodist Church. People in need will be transported from the day center to the host church site in a 15-passenger van donated by Monticello’s Hoglund Transportation.
Beyond taking care of immediate needs for food and shelter, Parish said a big part of Great River Family Promise will be working with homeless people to help them get into a better situation, just as all Family Promise affiliates do. Staff will talk with families to help seek out the root cause of their homelessness, and then work with the families to create action plans to get them back into transitional or permanent housing.
“Family Promise has a very good success rate of moving people through very quickly,” Parish said. “As far as we know, [they] are not achieved by any other program helping children and families without a home.”

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