Most Sundays, just 50 to 60 people gather to worship in Community of Christ's sanctuary in Apple Valley. But on a Tuesday in December, dozens of new faces wandered through the church, resting, munching on pizza and escaping the deep freeze outside.
The church is the latest stop for a homeless shelter for single adults, which rotates among six south metro congregations.
"The faith community has really stepped up," said Madeline Kastler, Dakota County housing manager.
The roving shelter was formed in December 2016 as an emergency solution to bring the county's homeless in from the elements. This year's effort is well-planned and deliberate, county staff said. It's run by professional staff from Matrix Housing Services, a Minneapolis nonprofit, under a $45,000 contract with the county. Some 150 trained volunteers help with daily tasks.
Dakota County allotted about $250,000 toward shelter operations in its 2018 budget, Matrix staff members said. The shelter will park in each location for up to four weeks, then move on.
Unlike last winter, when families were welcome, only adults and their pets can use the shelter this year. So far, two dogs, a cat and a parakeet have stayed.
Charlie Curry, a Church of Christ member and liaison to the shelter staff, said the congregation felt compelled to participate. "It's a matter of social justice and it's about values," Curry said. "I'm a bit surprised at the size of the problem."
The shelter, which accommodates up to 50 people, started Nov. 1 and will close April 1. Since it opened, 90 people have used it — about two-thirds of them men, with a median age of 40. They stayed an average of two weeks. The shelter provides meals, a place to sleep and to shower, and connects shelter users with county resources. Each time it moves to a new location, staff members arrange transportation for their guests.
The county has ongoing problems with homeless adults driven by a dearth of affordable housing that has left some residents sleeping in cars or camping outside until temperatures become dangerously cold. County staff says an "incredibly low" rental housing vacancy rate — less than 2 percent — has driven up the price of rental units, making them less affordable if they are available at all.
The shelter's six locations this winter are Community of Christ and Grace Lutheran Church, both in Apple Valley, Augustana Lutheran Church and St. Stephen's Lutheran Church, both in West St. Paul, The Well, a United Methodist Church in Rosemount and Easter Lutheran Church in Eagan. The shelter doesn't yet have a location during a two-week span in February.
When people arrive, Matrix staff determines what they need and whether they have connections in Dakota County through school, work or family. If they don't, staff tries connect them with their home counties.
"This shelter is for Dakota County community members, so we really try to make sure there's a tie there," said Subi Ambrose, Matrix Services' executive director.
A more intensive screening session later helps the shelter residents find jobs, housing, medical care and other necessities.
As they lounged on their mats in the Community of Christ gymnasium, Alex Field, 25, and Jason Bealka, 22, said the shelter has helped them get re-established.
The pair graduated from Simley High School in Inver Grove Heights. They've been a couple for six years and have a 4-year-old son. For the past 18 months or so, they've struggled to keep a roof over their heads.
"We were bouncing around from couches to people's houses," Field said. "Our family pretty much thinks that we're adults and we have to do it on our own."
Now, they have jobs, plan to get a car and will move into a townhouse Jan. 8, with help from a U.S. Housing and Urban Development program that keeps their rent at 30 percent of their income.
Bealka said the shelter and the links to services it provides have motivated him to move forward with his life, instead of feeling hopeless.
"This stuff, it can happen to anybody," Field said. "We didn't have jobs, a vehicle, a home. We started from ground zero."
Ambrose, said she's seen shelter residents make positive changes.
"If they have affordable housing and a safe place to sleep, they can help themselves," Ambrose said.
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