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Newly formed organization seeks to aid homeless families in Kandiyohi County

Homelessness may not be readily apparent in Kandiyohi County, Family Promise organizers say, but it’s here — from people sleeping on a friend’s sofa to spending the night in a car in a local parking lot. A “point in time homelessness count’’ taken Jan. 25, 2012, found 38 homeless households in Kandiyohi County. (Tribune photo/

WILLMAR — An organization representing churches, residents and social service agencies is asking churches in Willmar and Kandiyohi County to participate in a project that would provide temporary food and shelter to homeless families.

Participating churches would agree to use their facilities to feed and house homeless families with children for one-week periods.

The organization, Family Promise of Kandiyohi County, is modeled after Family Promise, a national program that assists religious and community organizations in developing and operating programs that provide shelter, meals and assistance for the homeless.

Organizers have commitments from Calvary Lutheran Church, United Methodist Church and Vinje Lutheran Church, all of Willmar, and Svea Lutheran Church of Svea. Organizers need nine more churches to launch the project.

Churches will host four or five families for one week at a time on a rotating basis; thus each congregation hosts four times per year.

Families are screened to ensure there are no chemical dependency or criminal issues and no abusive relationships.

The churches provide volunteers and housing, food and linens for a home-like atmosphere for the families. The project provides a day center, transportation and beds. Volunteers move the beds from church to church each week.

Organizers say the program costs less than half the cost of a typical shelter situation. Counseling is conducted at the day center to identify underlying problems. Organizers say the success rate at getting families into permanent housing is better than 70 percent.

A board of directors has been formed and Sherman Schueler of Svea has been elected president. The organization has filed for tax-exempt status as a nonprofit organization to receive tax-deductible donations.

Schueler said homelessness is present, although not readily apparent, because the public doesn’t see people pushing shopping carts or sleeping along highways.

A “point in time homelessness count’’ taken Jan. 25, 2012, found 38 homeless households in Kandiyohi County. Previous counts found 63 homeless households on July 27, 2011; 20 on Jan. 26, 2011; and 22 on Jan. 27, 2010.

“You and I don’t see it. But the people who do the survey drive through Walmart at night. They see cars sitting in the parking lot running: that’s a homeless family. Or people walking inside with a shopping cart: they don’t buy anything,’’ Schueler said.

The Kandiyohi County statistics are from a statewide homelessness survey by the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation of St. Paul.

Schueler said Family Promise hopes for a Jan. 1 startup.

“This is a new concept and there’s no doubt that people still have the concept if you’re homeless, you must be a vagabond. … We typically think of them as the chemically dependent or ... something like that,’’ he said. “That isn’t a very apt description of the people we’re going to have probably housed in our churches.’’

Schueler said the effort will require thousands of dollars in donations and hundreds of volunteers. Members of smaller churches that do not have the space to house guests can volunteer with larger churches.

Having many volunteers working together provides a networking benefit of people sharing information on possible housing and employment opportunities.

“Then the community starts to recognize and understand that people who are in our church … are just like us, and we lose some of that stigma that’s attached to being an unemployed or homeless person,’’ Schueler said.

Startup costs range from $80,000 to $100,000 to buy or rent space for the day center, buy a van for transportation and hire a director, who will run the program, work with guests and coordinate the churches.

Schueler said he would classify many Family Promise families as the working poor.

“The thing that seems to come up is the people who are working for $10 an hour or less,’’ he said. “They’re right on the edge. All they have to do is have one of their kids get sick; a divorce is one of the big issues; and a loss of job of one of the two if it’s two wage-earning parents. Sometimes it’s one person losing a job.  Those are all the kinds of things that typically we’re going to see, I think.’’

Schueler, who retired from dairy farming but switched to commercial hay production, said his lack of confidence in the economy over the next two to three years led him to help others.

“I was just like everybody else and didn’t realize it existed when I was too busy taking care of dairy cows because I never thought about it,’’ he said. “I realize I can’t do anything about the economics of the country. The only thing I can do is try to help out those who fall through the cracks.’’

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David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150