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Ryan Johnson, Published November 29 2012

Churches team up to help homeless

FARGO – A program established last year is expanding to shelter more homeless men, women and children in community churches during the coldest winter months.

But the FM Sheltering Churches Project is just a “Band-Aid” serving as a temporary way of dealing with the growing problem here, said Laurie Baker, executive director of the FM Coalition for Homeless Persons.

“This is a short-term solution,” she said. “It’s not even a solution, exactly. It’s some other word I don’t have at the moment. But what permanent solutions involve is community will to address the conditions of poverty and disability that we have in our community.”

Coordinator Sue Koesterman, pastor at Elim Lutheran Church in Fargo and chairwoman for Central Cities Ministry, said faith leaders got together last year to help meet the “tremendous need” at the five local emergency shelters, which together have room for about 330 people each night.

“What came out of that was sort of an organic movement that became known as the FM Sheltering Churches Project,” she said.

Nine churches rotated shifts last winter to serve as overflow emergency shelters from Jan. 1 to March 31, providing the equivalent of 1,418 nights of shelter.

There’s an even greater need now, said Rob Swiers, assistant director of the New Life Center shelter in Fargo that has served homeless men since 1907.

He said his agency has never seen demand as high as it is now.

During August, September and October, the New Life Center’s 70 emergency shelter beds were full enough times that 128 requests to spend the night had to be denied. That number grew during the first 28 nights of November as the weather turned colder, with 113 requests denied so far this month, Swiers said.

Jane Alexander, executive director of Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead, said her shelter also has been “overwhelmed” with requests to stay since it shifted its focus last spring and became a safety net for homeless families and women.

She said the church-organized project is a sign the community is committed to doing the right thing.

“It’s a public health crisis to not have a place to sleep at night, and it’s an ethical dilemma when society cannot take care of its own,” she said.

Koesterman said the project will begin offering overflow shelter at 13 churches on Sunday, and hundreds of volunteers and organizers will keep up the work through the end of March. She said the effort ultimately is a “faith-based imperative” for everyone involved.

“We feel this imperative to love our neighbor in tangible ways, and one of the most tangible ways to do that is to provide shelter and warmth and hospitality,” she said.

To volunteer, call FirstLink at 211 or visit www.myfirstlink.org or www.fmhomeless.org.

Organizers also are asking for donations of toilet paper, coffee and nonperishable foods that can be dropped off at First Lutheran Church, 619 Broadway. Checks can be made to the FM Coalition for Homeless Persons with “FM Sheltering Churches” in the memo line.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587