It was the housewarming before the homecoming.
Dozens of volunteers lined long tables at Richfield United Methodist Church in south Minneapolis, filling gift bags with items their new neighbors might need on move-in day. Bedding. Cleaning supplies. Home goods for people who had been without a home until Minneapolis made room at the former Metro Inn.
The old motel became a refuge during the pandemic when Hennepin County bought the property for use as a shelter. Now Agate Housing and Services is turning the site into low-income, permanent housing — 38 tidy one-room apartments for people exiting homelessness.
But there's a difference between being housed and feeling at home. Everyone says they want affordable housing. Not everyone welcomes it to the neighborhood.
In south Minneapolis, the welcome started at the church down the street.
"The welcome from the neighborhood has been amazing," said Sarah Byers, Agate's property manager at the site.
The seedy old motel had been a Lyndale Avenue eyesore for years. As word of Agate's project spread, church members stepped up to help. They volunteered to sew curtains, crochet potholders, even come in and help make up the beds and tidy the apartments with Agate staff.
When the congregation of the 170-year-old church chose Love Your Neighbor as a motto, they meant it.
"People of the church who have kind hearts, for years they would ask, 'Are there ways we can reach out to the population there?'" said the Rev. Nate Melcher, the church's senior pastor. "There was never a way we could do that safely, confidently."
As the congregation gathered to pack the welcome baskets, Melcher captured a photo of his 9-year-old daughter working beside a 90-year-old church member, working together to welcome the stranger.
"God has given us the great gift of love," he said. "The best way to thank you for a great gift is to get out there and share it."
Not every affordable housing project gets a reception this warm in this town.
"I've been in some terrible meetings in my career," said Kyle Hanson, Agate's executive director. "I've gone into neighborhood groups with a proposal for housing and I've been yelled at, screamed at. … This welcome has been very different."
Here, they're making welcome baskets.
"Think about it," Hanson said. "If you're moving out of an encampment or a shelter, you're not going to have a lot of the things you're going to need on day one and are probably not going to have the funds to go out and buy them like most of the rest of us."
But these 38 people will have new blankets, sheets, towels, a shower curtain waiting to welcome them home.
"The gospels are filled with stories of Jesus inviting the most marginalized people, not just to live near him, but to eat with him around the same table," said the Rev. Hope Hutchison, the church's director of Children and Family Ministries.
"And doesn't that make us safer? Doesn't that dispel the fear?" Melcher said. "When you get to know the people you live around?"
Hennepin County used federal COVID-19 relief funds to purchase half a dozen motels for use as emergency shelters during the pandemic. All of them are in the process of being converted into deeply affordable housing. Agate — the nonprofit created by the merger of House of Charity and St. Stephen's Human Services — purchased the renovated property from the county as a $900,000 forgivable loan.
The single-room units will be rented for between $425 and $550 a month to people who earn a fraction of south Minneapolis's median income, many straight from homelessness. The property will have communal kitchens, free laundry and access to support services.
Agate is working now to hire a full-time caretaker for the property. With a little luck, they might be able to welcome their first residents home for the holidays.
Thirty-eight units of affordable housing might not sound like much in a city where almost none of the housing is affordable.
"People say, 'Thirty-eight? Well that's not going to solve anything,'" said Byers, who left a career in luxury property management to work with Agate. "It's going to solve something amazing for those 38 people."