|BROOKLYN CENTER/BROOKLYN PARK — The Jones family is doing fine. One day, the dad loses his job. They are making it work until mom has a health crisis. Soon their house gets foreclosed on, and they move in with the Johnsons—for a short time until things gets better.
There are now eight people living under the same roof. Again, the families are making it work, until a relative of the Johnsons calls and asks if their family can move in too—albeit for a short time—until the dad finds another job.
As the house gets more crowded and often more complicated, the first casualties of this new living arrangement are usually older teens, who are commonly asked or decide on their own to leave because, being older, they can at least nominally take care of themselves.
This scenario is a common precursor to the rising number of homeless teens nationally and in the Twin Cities, according to the Rev. Rachel Morey, pastor of Brooklyn Mosaic United Methodist Church in Brooklyn Center and one of the leaders of a community-based approach to dealing with teen homelessness in the Brooklyns (Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park).
Discovering a need
A couple of years ago, Morey was planting a church that would eventually become Mosaic. Organizers had already done much of the background work that goes into church planting, such as determining their target market, yet they hadn’t discovered exactly what God was calling them to do.
“There was something that God was calling this new ministry start—with a handful of folks we had assembled at the time—to be about,” Morey said.
She began talking with school officials, the local police, city employees and others who were willing to talk to her about the community.
“In the course of those conversations,” Morey recalled, “one thing kept rising to the top of the list of community issues, and that was the fact that we had youth who had no safe place to sleep at night. That [the] number of homeless youth was just skyrocketing. It was happening so fast, and the ground was shifting so fast under everyone’s feet that there wasn’t a real clear way to address it. There were no pieces in place, no real agencies that were set to address that specifically in our area.”
The Amherst H. Wilder Foundation found that in October of 2009, the time of its most recent study, more than 9,600 people—adults, children and youth—were homeless in the state. That was a 25 percent increase from the group’s 2006 study.
Nearly half of those identified as homeless were children, youth and young adults.
Morey noted that in the Osseo/Maple Grove school district—a district neighboring the Brooklyns—there was an 84 percent increase in the number of identified homeless youth in recent school year comparisons.
Developing a plan
When Morey related what she was hearing from community officials to her fellow faith-based colleagues, she was surprised to learn that they were not aware of the severity of the problem.
“The thing that struck me was the stark disconnect between what I was hearing from police, schools, city [employees] and when I would talk to my faith-based colleagues and compatriots in that area,” she said. “The churches had no idea this was happening. I’m guilty of that. I served in Brooklyn Park for four years before I started doing this work, and nobody knew it was happening.”
While Morey began to understand that addressing this issue was part of what God was calling Mosaic to do, she also realized that as a new church plant—that hadn’t even started worshiping together regularly yet—“it seemed ridiculous to try and tackle something on our own when obviously God had put lots of good people of faith in the community.”
At that point, Morey began talking with the Rev. Steve Larson, pastor of Redeemer Covenant Church in Brooklyn Park, who was part of the Brooklyn Area Ministers Association (BAMA). The group, which wasn’t meeting regularly when Larson arrived in Minnesota six years ago, had begun to get together once a month and was looking for an issue in which the various churches could cooperate.
With Morey, BAMA and various city and community officials now eager to respond to the problem of teen homelessness, they gathered together to hold a community meeting, which included pastors, police, school officials and others.
The question was put before the group whether or not to tackle this issue in which they had all become aware.
“Unanimously they said yes,” Morey said.
Tackling the problem
After the group met, they decided to spend the first three months of 2011 becoming more informed about the issue of teen homelessness.
“We invited school social workers in, we invited youth intervention workers from the YMCA, the [executive director] from Families Moving Forward,” she said.
From those meetings, the Homelessness Task Force was formed, which was borne out of BAMA but also included police, school officials and several other interested parties.
The task force focused on four main issues.
“The first [issue was] connecting with a brand new program that was emerging in the suburbs of Hennepin County called the Suburban Host Home program,” Morey said. “The second goal was to get some congregations from Brooklyn Center/Brooklyn Park engaged as Families Moving Forward host congregations. The third thing is on the housing end … is a shelter in the suburbs. There are no shelters in suburban Hennepin or suburban Ramsey [counties]. All of our shelter beds are in the core cities.”
Finally, the task force wanted to establish a food shelf. Once congregations became aware of the need, they began to volunteer to handle various aspects of the food shelf, including donating food, volunteering time and offering space.
The food shelf opened in August of 2011 and by October, 40 people showed up to collect much-needed food items. In January of this year, the food shelf opened for two nights each week instead of one.
“In the middle of September , we moved the food shelf to the full care of the Community Emergency Assistance Program (CEAP), our family food shelf partner,” Morey said.
The two-year-long effort to find a need in their community and help to meet it can be copied elsewhere, Morey believes. But citizens, church goers and community leaders need to make sure they know their community as well as possible.
Speaking to other churches who want to get involved in something like this, Morey said: “First, do they know who their mayor is, do they know who their school principal is, do they know who the police are who patrol their streets? And if they can’t answer those questions, they have to start with that. Because you really can’t do ministry with a community that you don’t honestly know.”
In addition, Morey encourages churches to work with other groups, even if those groups are secular in nature.
“Churches are sometimes leery of working with secular partners,” she said. “If you want to actually do the work, you’ve got to get over that.”
For this group of believers and interested parties, the desire to help homeless teens in their community sparked their effort to become involved. Other communities may have different needs.
But Morey believes that “people of faith really need to be willing to get our hands dirty and dive [in].”
ACTIONPOINT: For more information about Brooklyn Mosaic United Methodist Church, visit www.brooklynmosaic.org. For more information about Redeemer Covenant Church, visit www.redeemercov.org.