Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church Housing Program: From Homelessness to Wholeness

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church (OSLC) in Minneapolis has acted on the biblical injunctions to care for those in need. Located in the Phillips neighborhood—notorious for drugs, crime, and intense poverty—this congregation has a heart for its community. Although members never intended to set up a homeless shelter or transitional housing, that is exactly what grew out of their simply responding to neighbors in need. At that time there were no blueprints available for helping the homeless. OSLC learned through trial and error.

1982—Church staff members were involved in several neighborhood groups, one of which helped Native Americans get good jobs. Despite their best efforts, a single component consistently prevented people from obtaining and sustaining work: lack of sufficient housing. Many employers will not consider a job applicant who has no permanent address; and without the security of a home, people simply cannot make the transition to secure employment. OSLC’s outreach committee began to realize the enormity of the problem and began discussing ways to address it.

Every night hundreds slept in alleys, doorways, and window wells. Some died from cold and exposure. The city of Minneapolis sent out a plea for city congregations to help in this “short-term” crisis by opening their church basements to homeless people during the winter.

Our Saviour’s Lutheran and two other churches led the way in responding. Eventually 13 inner-city Minneapolis churches opened their basements to the homeless. They provided a warm, safe shelter and some folding chairs. Volunteers from the congregation took turns staying the night with up to 40 people, mostly single men, who slept in OSLC’s basement that winter.

1983—The next fall, OSLC opened its “warming center” again. The congregation’s English as a Second Language (ESL) program for neighborhood immigrants met in the basement a few afternoons a week. These meetings ended just before the homeless came in for the night. The ESL folks always had food left over from their meetings, so they invited the homeless people to finish it off. Shelter volunteers saw how hungry the people were, and they brought this need to the congregation. More volunteers came to serve hot meals at night and provide food for breakfast.

1986—OSLC hired a director and staff for the shelter and recruited more volunteers from 10 to 12 other churches. In order to ease the burden on OSLC’s outreach board, a separate shelter board was formed. The shelter now operated year-round, providing food, mats, bedding, and rudimentary laundry facilities for the bed linens.

Late 1980s—The plight of America’s homeless population was now well known. Despite the efforts of government and churches, the problem persisted and even worsened. Conservative voices argued that homeless people choose homelessness. Many churches closed their basement shelters due to lack of volunteer support. Of the 13 churches in Minneapolis who operated shelters, OSLC was one of only three congregations that continued sheltering the homeless.

1991-1992—Instead of giving up, OSLC partnered with two other churches and bought two properties as transitional housing. They got MHFA loans, forgivable after 20 years if the facilities were used only for transitional housing. In 1991 they bought a six-bedroom duplex next door to the church, and in 1992 a former treatment facility on the next street, which provided 10 bedrooms after renovation. In these facilities, each person had his or her own bedroom: the women in the six-bedroom duplex and the men in the 10-bedroom building. With case management, including goal-setting and strict guidelines, people began moving into employment and permanent housing. Many of those who had successfully transitioned came back to volunteer at the shelter and help others as they had been helped.

1994—OSLC’s basement was the center for much of church life, as well as for outreach programs. The homeless shelter, the growing ESL program, an after-school program for kids, and various church committees all had to share the space. Among problems with timing and space was the issue of cleanliness. The basement was terribly smelly—a natural outcome of 40 unwashed people sleeping there every night. A medical clinic just four doors down from the church offered to sell their building to the shelter board. It could be renovated into an emergency shelter, and the homeless would not need to share the church basement. The offer seemed an answer to prayer, but there was no money for the venture.

1995—OSLC’s much beloved senior pastor of many years resigned to take a position in the synod office. Church members were moving out of the rough neighborhood, and the congregation began declining in numbers. The night before the children’s Christmas pageant, an enormous fire gutted the church. The people sleeping in the basement were saved and relocated to a space made available through Community Emergency Services. The shelter board was able to get a permit to operate a shelter there, but it was only temporary.

OSLC held their worship services in the chapel of the Lutheran Social Services headquarters building across the street. As the congregation grieved the loss of their pastor and their building, their numbers continued declining. What should they do? Build? Fold? Merge with another church? After much discussion and prayer, the congregation decided to make the housing program a priority. With the first insurance payment, they gave the shelter board the money to buy and renovate the medical building. The shelter board agreed to raise money to pay the church back. It took over $200,000 and armies of volunteers to get the place fixed up and running.

1998—Our Saviour’s Housing began operating as an emergency 14-hour shelter, offering 40 beds, showers, laundry facilities, a gathering room/dining hall, and full service kitchen. Two full-time case managers set high expectations for the people in the program. A resident must get and keep a job, save money, and look for housing, as well as obey the shelter’s strict rules banning drugs and alcohol. This program has become the most respected in the Twin Cities’ shelter-ring community.

2000—Our Saviour’s Lutheran built a new church facility. In place of the towering stone fortress of 1912, a white street-level building with floor-to-ceiling windows faces a busy corner bus stop. Its openness welcomes the community. As a symbol of OSLC’s inner-city nature, they incorporated concrete sidewalks as walkways through the foyer, into and around the hardwood floored sanctuary. The basement is now completely devoted to ESL and GED programs.

2002—In addition to the 40-bed emergency shelter, Our Saviour’s Housing operates two transitional housing units for single men and women, and a large house used as transitional housing for three families, next door to the women’s transitional duplex. It also has a cottage for the caseworkers’ offices. Our Saviour’s Housing is still a program of the church, but for liability reasons, it is in the process of becoming a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The entire housing program operates on a $600,000 budget.

Our Saviour’s Housing’s 30 to 35 percent success rate for clients finding permanent housing would be higher if more affordable housing were available. Residents work hard to find employment, save money, and deal with their personal issues, but often they are unable to secure a place to live before their time in the shelter expires. They are allowed a maximum of 90 days (including extensions) in one shelter, but that is often not enough time to overcome all their obstacles. Many residents must move on to another shelter or the street instead of into an affordable apartmen

Sandra Aslaksen, current director of Our Saviour’s Housing, cites NIMBYism, low wages, and political apathy for the continuing lack of affordable housing. When comparing the number of available housing units to numbers of homeless, she says, “We’re going backwards! There have never been more sheltered beds available—but though all the beds are filled, there have never been more homeless people on the streets.”

St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church: A Housing Summit
St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church formed a leadership council made up of 12 people who were housing, financial, and neighborhood experts. They held a “Housing Summit” once a week for 10 weeks. In order to define their mission they asked: “In an ideal situation, how would a faith community address the housing crisis in our area?” If every church asked itself this same question there would be many different answers. St. Joan answered it by creating a collaborative ministry of four teams:

  1. The Dream Team—architects, contractors, and others with housing development experience—identifies potential neighboring properties for rehab or development.
  2. The Shared-Space Team works with homeowners who are willing to share their living space with others.
  3. The Adopt a Family Team—working with school officials and social services—identifies a homeless or at-risk family. During the two-year transition from homelessness to secure housing, the family receives transitional housing, and emotional and financial support.
  4. The Leadership Support and Service Team facilitates the other teams and works to ensure their success.

The 10-week Housing Summit culminated in a Housing Sunday—a theme carried from pulpit to religion classes. Children drew pictures of houses, which lined the walls of the gym, and wrote letters to their mayors asking what they were doing about housing issues. Many kids received personal responses and thanks from their mayors.

The Housing Summit was an eye-opener, even to a church like St. Joan that was already involved in affordable housing. For years, St. Joan had been renting out a house to a low-income family at below market rate. They operated two hospice homes for adults living with HIV/AIDS and were heavily involved in affordable housing advocacy. Before the summit, many people in the congregation, and even some on the council, assumed there was nothing more they could do to make a difference in their community’s development, because the neighborhood appeared to be already built up and developed. On closer inspection, the Dream Team found 20 to 30 properties nearby that were condemned, empty, or with liens on them. These have been marked for possible future development.

At the time of this publication, St. Joan is still in the process of growing its housing program. They hope to partner with other faith communities to create a strong network of housing provision and advocacy. Although their story is still unfolding, St. Joan’s process offers an excellent model for others to follow.

Lawndale Christian Development Corporation: A Housing Rehabilitation Initiative
Lawndale Christian Development Corporation (LCDC) in Chicago (winner of a FMF Maxwell Award) is a great example of neighborhood housing rehabilitation. While the Department of Building was busy demolishing deteriorating apartment buildings, LCDC got busy renewing them—creating safe, affordable housing.

LCDC partnered with Local Initiatives Support Corporation, worked with a community bank to get a first mortgage, and obtained a second no-interest, 40-year payment-deferred mortgage from the city. They qualified for an energy grant and renovated two abandoned apartment buildings, now known as Tabernacle Apartments. Tabernacle Apartments has 26 units and accepts Section 8 vouchers. Residents pay no more than 30 percent of their income for rent. The clientele includes African Americans, families, seniors, those with physical disabilities, single parents, and single adults. LCDC also has a day care center, and offers health and social services through its health center and church.

To read more about Lawndale Christian Development Center and other fine projects, go to www.fanniemaefoundation.org and click on Maxwell Awards of Excellence.

Strategices to Elevate People: A Partnership Effort
In Montgomery, Alabama, two black and five white congregations came together to address their town’s problems of poverty and homelessness. The stability those seven churches created became a foundation for building an inter-racial consortium of 26 churches representing 10 denominations. The congregations’ leadership knew it would take working with other groups to make their project successful. They partnered with financial institutions, federal agencies, and private businesses and raised $270,000 of in-kind donations.

Over 500 volunteers provide a variety of social, spiritual, and supportive services to residents of nine public housing developments through a program called Strategies to Elevate People (STEP). These strategies work to end homelessness, and develop self-sufficiency and economic opportunities for Montgomery’s poor. The STEP program has benefited not only public housing residents with an elevated sense of pride in self and community, but the city at large, with lower incidents of crime and greater trust between races. Housing authorities in Alabama have studied this highly successful program in order to imitate it elsewhere. Montgomery’s STEP program continues to grow.

The Montgomery story won HUD’s former Best Practices and Profiles, an initiative that unfortunately has been suspended due to budget cuts.