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Dave Roepke, Published January 21 2010

Wesley Center, a Fargo drop-in center for the homeless, closes doors

With the Wesley Center’s doors locked temporarily but indefinitely, Ron Peterson is worried.

The 54-year-old homeless man has gone to the center off and on for a decade, and has a deep appreciation for what the Native American Christian Ministry offered there – practical and holistic assistance for those who need it the most.

“That place is about helping families and children,” he said. “It’s about spiritual enrichment. It’s about staying healthy.”

The ministry’s home has been the Wesley Center at 109 9th St. St. in Fargo, a former parsonage operated and owned by First United Methodist Church.

The church closed the center Tuesday. Sandi Berlin, the ministry’s part-time director, said the 40 or so visitors that come there daily had no warning.

“The people who depend on the Wesley Center have nowhere to go, and it’s January. That’s scary,” she said.

The Rev. Rich Zeck said shuttering the center is a temporary move meant to give the ministry’s board time to adjust its mission and figure out how to deal with its lack of staffing.

Zeck said the ministry – funded by First United Methodist and other churches – had to reduce Berlin’s hours to part time because of dwindling resources. It’s subsequently been difficult to enforce regulations.

“It’s not a 24/7 ministry, but people were staying there overnight,” he said.

For at least two winters, ending in 2007, the Wesley Center hosted a nighttime drop-in center called Ray of Hope. At the time, it was one of the few places the intoxicated homeless could get inside because most shelters do not allow residents who have been drinking.

Berlin said since a “wet” house opened in 2008, the Gladys Ray Shelter, the ministry at the Wesley Center has been the daytime counterpart for many residents at Gladys Ray.

There were 55 calls for police service at the Wesley Center in 2009. For comparison, 385 police service calls were made to the Gladys Ray Center in 2009, just through mid-October.

Berlin isn’t sure what will happen with the ministry or with Sweet Medicine, a separate and fledgling nonprofit she is founding with the intent to serve the local Native American population.

“We don’t have land or anything to call our own. We’re at the mercy of the church,” she said.

Berlin said those seeking to help with Sweet Medicine can e-mail her at berlinsandra@yahoo.com.

No timetable for reopening the Wesley Center was set Wednesday afternoon during a meeting between church and ministry officials, Zeck said. An ecumenical worship service that had been using the center on Sundays at noon will move next door to First United, he said.

Zeck said he thinks the work that was being done at the Wesley Center is important and difficult.

“That ministry, I think, is one of the toughest ministries in town,” he said.

A sign on the center’s door directed clients to the Salvation Army and the Native American Center Project, a new daytime drop-in at 303 Roberts St. The referral center is a Cultural Diversity Resources program that opened Dec. 22.

“Nobody will be out in the cold,” Zeck said.

Peterson, a native of Deer Creek, Minn., is not so sure.

Many homeless alcoholics will turn to bars to get inside if they don’t have the facilities at the center, he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535