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Homelessness, hunger, persist in River Falls

People on the front lines of River Falls battle with hunger and homelessness agree: Both conditions continue throughout Pierce and St. Croix counties.

A group gathered last week to discuss the issues, seek solutions and encourage support of all the entities trying to meet people's most basic needs.

The Rev. Gerald Harris of St. Bridget's Catholic Church, said, "We're trying to have November designated as a month of compassion because the need is so great."

At the meeting were Harris; pastor of Hope Lutheran Church Sandra Johnson; Ronna Ellis of the Assistance and Resource Center; Director of Our Neighbors' Place Mary Joan Sutton; Stephen Smith from the River Falls Community Food Pantry; and from Servant of the Shepherd Church were Pastor Frank Lukasiewicz and members Jasmine Keppers, Phil Meier, Roxanne Whitney and Kare Willson.

Lukasiewicz said about his church: "We've been dealing with the homeless situation for 10 years."

He asked group members what they would do if a mother and son showed up at their door -- like they had at his church the night before -- to say they had nowhere to go and would be sleeping in their car again.

He told of another family living in its car that was told they shouldn't and couldn't remain in their church parking lot overnight. Another time, the pastor had no choice but to let a man and his pregnant girlfriend sleep inside the church.

Usually, Servant of the Shepherd members or their family offer their couch or other spare space as temporary shelter.

The whole group confirms that people actually do sleep in their cars, pitch a tent or find unlocked garages or sheds. They also rummage through restaurant dumpsters for food.

The members also say there are between eight and 20 people in and around River Falls who choose to be homeless.

They sleep underneath bridges or along the banks of the Kinnickinnic River and in other unobtrusive spots.

Great strides, elusive finish line

The group acknowledges substantial progress in meeting the needs of hungry and homeless people in both of River Falls' home counties. Volunteers established the nonprofit organizations Our Neighbors Place, a temporary emergency shelter for families and the Day Center, where people can go to find clothing, phone and Internet services, establish a mailing address, and other resources.

The River Falls Community Food Pantry has grown and expanded.

The River Falls-based nonprofit organization Assistance and Resource Center (ARC) continues to maintain a virtual office, hotline and budget of $30,000 a year to help people who need emergency assistance.

Ellis said ARC's help ranges from giving a gas card to helping prevent someone's utilities from getting cut off. Harris confirms that ARC has been around for about two decades.

The group mentions the Free Clinic of Pierce and St. Croix Counties as another good accomplishment in serving the needy.

All the participants acknowledge Grace Place in Somerset as the only emergency shelter in Pierce and St. Croix that takes in individuals -- if space is available.

No one wants to detract from these efforts, but most acknowledge that SOS needs help, that its work isn't as high profile or well known as others. It has neither denominational support nor paid staff to seek grants or donors. It doesn't qualify for most traditional funding that requires meticulous record keeping.

Lukasiewicz said Servant of the Shepherd gets people referred from other churches, hospitals, food pantries, police, individuals, other shelters word gets around of the church's servant mission of meeting basic needs immediately.

Often people are too embarrassed to go where they'd be recognized. Others may not have an address to use in applying for assistance. Some don't have a means to cook and just ask for one canned item they can open and eat.

Many Servant of Shepherd Church members have overcome challenges similar to the ones of those they help. They use their own modest resources to feed, house and nurture people.

Keppers commented, "We're all people who have fallen through the cracks."

Lukasiewicz classifies homeless into four categories.

First are those who choose to be homeless. Second are those facing a short-term emergency. Third are the long-term homeless starting over but wanting to stay in River Falls.

"They're people we try to take care of for up to 18 months," said the pastor.

Fourth are the people living paycheck-to-paycheck and driven to homelessness after a job loss, illness, major car repair or other mishap.

Catching those who fall

Many in the group answered Lukasiewicz by saying they'd send the mother and child to a hotel, but that requires funding that may not exist.

Ellis said ARC once provided emergency-overnight shelter at local motels but stopped after having liability issues over damages.

Sutton pointed out to Lukasiewicz, "The people you're helping are coming from all over Pierce and St. Croix counties."

He said yes, and the only monetary support comes from St. Bridget's.

Johnson said the time has come to ask the community for help -- from funding ministries such as Servant of the Shepherd and increasing support to the RFC Food Pantry, ONP, ARC, the Free Clinic, and others, to offering creative ideas for filling the gaps.

Meeting discussion inferred how guidelines create bureaucracy but must be met to get funding. Smith says the food pantry tracks numbers so its suppliers know it isn't selling food out of a pickup in some alley. It must also give only to families and individuals, not to entities or organizations.

Increasing food costs make money donations to the RFCFP more important now than ever. Smith emphasizes how much more food the pantry can buy with people's dollars than an individual can.

Sutton said ONP guests sign a contract, agree to measurable goals and ultimately, emerge self-sufficient. The Day Center helps hundreds of guests find resources.

She says the Kinnickinnic Backpack program combats hunger by packing food for kids who don't have enough on the weekend. The program works well except for when children aren't in school, leaving a transport-delivery gap.

Necessities provided by the ARC organization, says Ellis, have included everything from diapers and gas cards to utilities and car repairs. She said if there's a need, ARC tries to fill it and/or help people to help themselves.

Give, give, give

Keppers says she's prayerful that once people know how great the need is, they'll step up to help.

She and her roommate, both 19, took in another girl their age and helped her get on her feet, which required not only resources but counseling and encouragement.

Meier spent time on the street and in shelters. He credits Servant of the Shepherd with saving his life.

Since coming to River Falls, he's helped five men take control of their lives and confirms it imposed on his income.

He said, "And if it weren't for the food pantry, we wouldn't have had food."

People usually have other needs such as car items, but his role is almost exclusively to give shelter and food.

Meier expresses frustration at the many referrals to Servant of the Shepherd but lack of support. He wondered why the churches and other charities in town cannot collectively care for less than 100 homeless people a year.

He realizes people's apprehension about giving when the money could be used less than constructively. He says he just gives and remembers it's not his job to change people's spirit or judge them.

Ellis said ARC has examined the question: When does helping become enabling?

"I think it's a balance of what you feel in your heart and what you're able to do," she said.

Harris acknowledges the same story with a few people at church who want to help but won't enable people. He says the key is treating all people with dignity and respect.

Whitney and Willson of Servant of the Shepherd say most of the time, they pray about the decision of whether to give whatever it may be -- if nothing points to no, they do. They say Pastor Frank does the same, always proclaiming, "It's not my money anyway."

He reminded the group before departing, "We're all a part of this thing to help the community.