Karen Meyer knows there’s no quick fix when it comes to eliminating financial crises and homelessness. That’s why the director of the New Brighton-based Community Support Center (CSC) takes the long view — sometimes yearslong — to get people back on their feet. Once it accepts a case, the center has been able to stop almost 100% of evictions. And that’s just the first step for the church-supported organization operating on a small annual budget of $87,000, with one full-time staff person. Next up for clients: Life skills training, including financial literacy, goal-setting, even relationship mending. “This is a neighbor-to-neighbor, conversational relationship,” said Meyer, who elaborates below.
Q: Lots of nonprofits work on homelessness. What sets you apart?
A: We offer a long-term relationship after the crisis has been resolved to help the client achieve financial stability. We take time to listen to our participants with sessions lasting at least one hour every couple of weeks for as long as the participant finds it helpful to continue. Because we are funded entirely through local contributions, we can be flexible in adapting our aid to the specific needs of applicants. For example, in some cases, we have worked with a participant for many months and never given them money because we helped them solve their crisis another way. And we also have the discretion to give financial aid more than one time to a participant, if needed.
Q: CSC is a collaboration of churches, but you are not faith-based. Please explain.
A: This organization was begun and is supported entirely by donations from a dozen local congregations (Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Covenant, Unitarian), individual contributions (providing about one-third of the budget), and community organizations/businesses. While operating in a strictly secular mode, the organization fulfills the common desire of these churches and our community to reach out to our neighbors and give them a hand before they become homeless.
Q: You serve New Brighton, Mounds View, Shoreview and Arden Hills. Are people surprised to hear that homelessness is an issue in these suburban communities?
A: Yes. It is better hidden in the suburbs, but it does exist. In 2018 to 2019, Mounds View Public Schools reported 180 homeless students. We served 50 families and individuals. Gentrification has created problems for many working people because rents are so high and affordable housing is so scarce. People sometimes think that all these people are poor and irresponsible, not-working people who don’t care about their situation. Some of our participants are middle-class people who have had multiple crises, which led them to us. We see a lot of single working moms and recently retired workers who don’t have sufficient income. Typically, something happens where they had an unexpected expense, such as a car repair or illness that prevents them from working.
Q: How do people find you?
A: We get referrals from churches and other social service agencies such as United Way 211, Ramsey County, Salvation Army, Ralph Reeder Food Shelf and Community Action Partnership.
Q: How does your process begin?
A: First, there is a two-hour session with participants where we listen and ask a lot of questions to try to understand the situation. Second, we analyze their current spending and level of debt. We find that many of our participants were never taught skills in budgeting, saving, paying off debts and not taking on debts, so teaching even basic financial skills is beneficial to keep a family out of another financial crisis. Third, we refer applicants to, and often help them access, government/organizational/foundation aid that we know is available. Fourth, we give aid to people that the usual county and foundations cannot because the participant may have already used those services and does not qualify for a variety of reasons. After the emergency situation is resolved, we engage in a long-term relationship to guide, encourage and support the participant as they slowly address the issues that will need to be solved to prevent future crises.
Q: That includes improving family and social relationships. Why?
A: We find that a lot of our participants are initially socially isolated, which often exacerbates depression and feeling overwhelmed with their problems. We encourage people to connect to churches and community groups, and to reconnect with family members.
Q: Do you partner with landlords?
A: Yes. We are able to request extensions to gather funds. We help arrange payment plans for our participants. Landlords accept our letters of guarantee, so when time is short to prevent an eviction, we can step in immediately. We stop evictions almost 100% of the time. Landlords refer people to us.
Q: What does getting them “back on their feet” look like to you?
A: When they can plan their bill-paying from their own money and start to think long-range about their goals, such as a major purchase, furthering their education, building savings. Another indicator would be their stress levels going down.
Q: How can we help?
A: Donations from our community are vital. And let more churches, organizations and individuals know of our existence, in hope that they will join us.
More on CSC at communitysupportcenter.org.