Katelyn Kneer finished her second bowl of macaroni and grabbed the first volunteer she could find at Edina Community Lutheran Church.

It had been a long day. The homeless 10-year-old slept at the church as part of the Families Moving Forward shelter program. She rose at 6:20 a.m. with her family to catch a van to the program's day center in Minneapolis, then rode a taxi with her sister to school, then returned to the day center for a shower, then caught the van back to church.

With dinner done, finally, it was time to play.

"I love foosball!" she said, dragging the volunteer. "I'm good at it too! Do you want to run? I'm a good runner too!"

Churches are responding to the rise of homelessness in the Twin Cities by aligning with groups such as Families Moving Forward and sheltering families for three to four weeks over the course of a year.

It's a practical approach that takes advantage of churches' cheap, open space and abundant volunteers. But it also has critics, because organizers move families daily between churches and day centers and rotate them to new church shelters every week or two.

Minneapolis-based Families Moving Forward's network of 41 churches and one synagogue includes sites in Eagan, Shoreview and Wayzata. Transportation consumes one-tenth of its budget.

Shelter leaders acknowledged the logistical challenges, but said the model works because families have the day centers as their home bases.

The church networks also remain cheaper than most overnight shelters -- despite the transportation expenses - and foster meaningful interactions between the homeless families and their church hosts.

"The congregations and the faith and church communities really do love our families unconditionally," said Juli Baecker, president of Families Moving Forward. "It's like going to stay at your aunt's house."

A similar program, Project Home, hosts families at 27 locations, mostly churches, in Ramsey County. The month-old Family Promise program hosts families at 13 churches in Anoka County. On any given night, the three shelter 100 individuals from 30 families.

Volunteers serve meals, play with children and talk with parents. Many are startled to meet homeless kids who look and play like their own, Baecker said, and to hear how illness or job loss put families on the streets.

"[Homelessness] snowballs," Baecker said. "It happens, and it is quick."

A disease, then homeless

That's how it felt for Katelyn's parents, Scott Kneer, 39, and Jennifer Erickson, 45. A flareup of Crohn's disease made Erickson too sick to work as a nursing assistant. Soon they couldn't afford rent on their St. Paul apartment.

The weekly moves, to eight different churches since August, have been bewildering, but Erickson said there are advantages. Each church offers new fun for Katelyn and her 9-year-old sister, Hannah.

Teens at one church played dress-up with the two bubbly girls -- lovers of chocolate and pink and all things Hannah Montana and Justin Bieber. Another church had a bonfire. At Edina Lutheran, Katelyn switched from foosball to Barbies with her sister and then a wild game of tossing stuffed animals with other kids.

Erickson smiled, then yawned. The idea is that parents relax elsewhere while volunteers watch the kids, but she likes to mingle.

Any new connection could lead to a job, she figures. "We're willing to do dishes or scrub toilets -- whatever we have to do."

Among those concerned with the roving church model of shelter is Monica Nilsson, street outreach director for St. Stephen's Human Services in Minneapolis. She figures it costs up to $1,000 per month to shelter a family with the church model and up to $3,000 per month to place a family in a traditional shelter. Both cost more than vouchers families could use to afford housing.

"What they need is a two-bedroom apartment at $800 a month, which is cheaper than both options," she said.

Sara Liegl, director of Ramsey's Project Home, understands Nilsson's concerns, but said shelters will always be needed to help families get into long-term housing.

"Where do [families] sleep," she asked, "those few nights before they are put into a housing situation?"

She estimated that the Ramsey County program, which is largely publicly funded, shelters a family at less than $500 per month.

Baecker said a key element of the church shelter programs is the day centers. The Families Moving Forward center offers closets, showers, laundry facilities and a kitchen for the families. Computers and support workers help them search for homes and jobs.

Daily search for jobs, housing

The search begins daily for Kneer and Erickson once the girls are off to school. With state income subsidies, they can afford a two-bedroom apartment - hopefully one that is close to relatives and Erickson's doctors in St. Paul.

Kneer said his lack of college education and experience is making the job hunt tough. He loved his old job as a shuttle driver for railroad crews, but his old company isn't hiring.

Erickson thinks she is healthy enough to handle nursing again, but can't afford to get recertified and is looking for other work.

More than 90 percent of families served by Families Moving Forward leave the church shelters for permanent homes, but it's taking longer. Families used to stay for 72 days. Now the average is 165 days. Not surprisingly, the need surged as the economy tanked and donations declined, Baecker said.

Families Moving Forward hit a "financial crisis" at the height of the recession in 2008 and had to cut staff, eliminate one van and make other cuts. With little public funding, it merged with Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation to ensure viability. Baecker said it made sense long-term to align with the foundation, which builds affordable housing.

Kneer and Erickson hope to get housing of their own soon. After weeks of making calls, they're getting realistic leads.

They were scraping by before, and say that would be just fine now. They miss simple things about life on their own, caving in once in a while when the girls beg to go to McDonald's or spending Friday nights at car shows in North St. Paul.

The couple worries about the stress on the girls, and whether they get teased at school. Support from the church volunteers has made a difference, Kneer said.

"They just talk to you like a normal family," he said, "as if you're going there for church."

The second his family moves out, another will enter.

Families Moving Forward gets hundreds of calls for every shelter opening. Ramsey's churches are full, despite additional county funding this year that expanded capacity from 40 beds to 60.

Anoka County has an estimated 1,300 residents "couch-hopping" with relatives or friends or living in cars. The new shelter program there filled up on day one. Its first family moved to permanent housing last week.

"Wow, we're glad to be open and able to be full," said Junita Cathey of the Anoka program. "But it also means the need is even greater than we realize."

Despite her criticisms, Nilsson is grateful the churches are available, especially as winter approaches and the demand for shelters rises. She hopes interacting with homeless families will inspire members to get involved and not feel like "they've kind of done their time for this month."

"Where we need the investment of time is in problem-solving" about homelessness, she said. "It's more than just opening up the church overnight."

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744