Metro churches link up to lift families out of poverty

Volunteer and friend
Lumen Christi volunteer Bridget Jackson, 14, with an FMF toddler
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Charlotte, who prefers her last name not be used, had a job and roof over her and her teenage son's head. Then she lost the job. To keep her housing and put food on the table she took temporary work.

"I was doing some day labor like lifting more than fifty or sixty pounds," she says.

Meal and reading time
Evening meal time at Lumen Christi parish volunteer co-coordinator Jackie Petersen Morehead holds one of the toddlers and talks to a sixteen-year-old guest
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

The physical strain, Charlotte says, was too much.

"It made me injure myself worse, and I would be walking down the street and my leg gave out and I fell in rush hour traffic one day and no one was with me. Thank God, I made it out of the middle of the street," she says.

Because of Charlotte's injury, she couldn't work and lost her place to live. She and her 16 year old son were out on the street.

Susan, not her real name, says she is the victim of domestic violence and has kept moving herself, to allow her and her four children to escape.

"With the domestic (violence) it's one of the reasons I said in my head I've been jumping from house to house. Because of this hidden fear," she says.

A graduate
Thyzena Williams holds her grandson at the Families Moving Forward (FMF) center on Minneapolis' near north side where she and other graduates of the program meet once a month for a meal
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

When she ran out of places to run, Susan and her children were on the street, homeless.

United Way directed both Susan and Charlotte to Families Moving Forward. The 15 year old north Minneapolis private, non-profit is a social service agency. It's money comes from a state grant, foundations, individuals and the 40 congregations that support its work.

The shelter part of the program doesn't happen at the organization's Minneapolis headquarters. Instead, every night for a week families are bused to one of the member churches. On a recent night the Families Moving Forward adults and children were guests at Lumen Christi, a Catholic church in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood.

A bus delivers nine family members to the church, where they have their evening meal, sleep, have breakfast the next morning. Then the bus arrives again to take the children to school or daycare and take the adults to classes, to work or to counseling sessions at Families Moving Forward. The next week the families stay at another church. The overnight church stays do not include attempts to convert the families.

Lumen Christi pastor Father John Bauer says typically in other shelters families can't be together. They're split up by gender, sending the father and teenage boys elsewhere.

"Often time there are enough shelter beds but the shelter network can be pretty harsh and in most cases the shelters will not take intact families," he says.

At Lumen Christi men and women sleep in separate but nearby rooms. Volunteers stay with them overnight.

Sixty Lumen Christi members supply meals, activities and companionship for the seven night stints, four times a year. Member Terri Jackson,who helps find volunteers, says the goal of ending poverty is too overwhelming even for volunteers with lots of compassion and free time. Helping families get through seven days is more realistic.

"We know we can do this, we can welcome into them into our homes and treat them as guests and do something for a week and poor our heart into it," she says. Helping people get out of poverty takes time and money. Families Moving Forward staff work intensely with about 60 families a year, about 300 individuals. All of their needs, clothing, laundry, shelter, food, transportation, toothbrushes, are supplied.

Susan praises the program but she says she can tell the toll it takes on her children.

"It's not stable first of all to keep moving around, and it may be exciting to them because it's this new thing, but they're too young to be doing so much moving so it's kind of affecting their peace of mind, where they call home. I'm just kind of confusing them right now. I just want to get back on the right path," she says.

Susan says she's finishing her GED. She wants to go to cosmetology school.

Families Moving Forward executive director Leslie Frost says the goal is to get the families out of the program in 45 to 60 days. Frost says every study she's seen shows shelter life is not good for children.

"Homeless children on average will be academically behind, developmentally behind, physically more ill and emotionally more ill and those are all characteristics that if continued lead not to success as an adult possible failure as an adult," she says.

Frost commends state and local efforts to end homelessness. But she says most of the attention goes to single adults. At least as large an issue, Frost says, is the number of families often led by women who are poor.

Advocates for the poor say lack of child care is one reason poor families struggle to escape poverty. They point to the millions of dollars Minnesota has taken out of child care assistance for low income families since 2003, as one contributing factor.

After 14 years of helping people get out of poverty Leslie Frost has few illusions about what it takes. She says many of the families have spent a lifetime making bad financial and educational decisions. Frost says it can take years, maybe a generation, to climb out of the hole they are in.

Key to helping families break the cycle of successive generations of poverty, Frost says, is helping the children. Her personal formula for ending poverty includes pre-natal care for mothers and pre-school education for the kids before they enter kindergarten.

"When the children of families in poverty get to kindergarten they are on an even playing field with children from families of means because if a child starts out behind a child will go through school behind," she says.

Anti-poverty advocate Deborah Schlick, the executive director of the Affirmative Options Coalition, says helping the poor is a smart investment given the projected demand for workers in the next decade.

"When we handed out homesteads in the 19th century, when we created the whole idea of public education in this country, when we made it possible for returning vets to not only buy a home but get a college education we created whole generations of people who were able to move into the middle class," she says.

Moving into the middle class hasn't happened for Thyzena Williams, a 2001 graduate of the Families Moving Forward program. However the outlook for her seven children and her grandchildren is brighter. The agency helped her find housing and work several years ago. All of the children are in school or in jobs and have places to live. Williams says the intense individual attention given to her by Families Moving Forward worked.

"There's a lot of shelters out have the support but not the emotional part of it, it was kind of the paperwork, shuffle you around, you are on your own basically, but here at Families Moving Forward it was a step by step. They were with me every step of the way and still is," she says.

The Families Moving Forward program is small. Compared to public anti poverty programs run by the county or the federal government the non-profit agency's $500,000 a year a budget is a drop in the bucket. The lack of money is made up in part by the work of 4000 volunteers at the member churches.

Families Moving Forward's success rate is not 100 percent. But some advocates think smaller is often better because the poor people get more individual help. Leslie Frost estimates about half the families they serve eventually make it out of poverty. There's not enough money for a formal follow up program, even so, every month Families Moving Forward hosts an alumni dinner. It's a chance to catch up and everyone including the graduates can visit the storeroom and select a donated piece of furniture or some clothing, or a bag of diapers or food to help them get through to the next visit.