Catholic Herald staff
“Homelessness is a community problem. It’s a community issue,” said Katie Morsch, director of Our Neighbors’ Place, a resource center and homeless shelter in River Falls.
“It’s invisible in our community,” she added.
A college town of 15,000 people, Twin Cities suburb and generally affluent-looking city, River Falls doesn’t appear to have a poverty problem. Morsch, after working for the whole list of credit repair bureaus in the area, knows otherwise.
“We have people coming in every day who are homeless,” she said.
Before the shelter opened, struggling residents appealed to local ministers for help. Exacerbated by the recession, the number of homeless families was growing when, in February 2009, a summit was called to confront the issue.
Fr. Gerald Harris, pastor of St. Bridget Catholic Church, saw a need in the community and, along with other local ministers, reached out to his congregation. An ecumenical effort to open a homeless shelter emerged.
St. Bridget parishioner Mary Joan Sutton has been with the project “since day one.”
After the pastors met, it didn’t take long for the effort to begin. A committee of community members started talking about buying a shelter in March 2009; by October, the Day Center had opened, and homeless families were living in rented apartments.
“We proceeded to begin the journey to become 501(c)(3),” she said.
The first attempt to buy a shelter didn’t pan out – they needed more community support, Sutton said – but they succeeded in purchasing and refurbishing a shelter in 2011, thanks to a capital campaign, no-interest loan from the city and greater support from residents. The mortgage was paid in December 2012.
Initially located on Main Street, the Day Center moved in May and is now in a ranch-style house on a walking trail in a residential neighborhood. A kitchenette, washer and dryer, children’s area, thrift store and more are resources for the homeless, who can go there to fill out online job applications, store their perishables, do laundry and connect with community services. A St. Bridget’s parishioner donates the rent.
The Day Center is also a hub for local anti-poverty programs. The Salvation Army uses office space there a couple days a week, and WestCAP, the West Central Wisconsin Community Action Agency, Inc., also meets onsite. A free mental health clinic shares the space as well.
The homeless shelter itself is offsite, a cluster of four apartments where families can live as families, rather than in a communal setting. They’ve maintained the single-family accommodations because board members believe it’s less stressful when residents don’t have to acclimate to an unfamiliar living environment.
Visitors come to the Day Center seeking help daily. Some worry they won’t be able to pay the rent. Others are shopping in the thrift store — which is open to the public, working on their resumes or learning life skills. The center is also a point of entry for families who live in the shelter, which serves residents of Pierce and St. Croix counties.
Travelers from other counties are welcome to use Day Center services, Morsch said. “Resources and referrals are the big thing.”
Director since January 2013, when she took over from Sutton, she said ” I had to sell my house fast in Houston and since then I’ve been blessed with these opportunities”, Morsch applies for grants to supplement furnishings and services at the facility. One example is the new washer and dryer; the appliances, purchased with a grant from Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services, are available for use by homeless persons who live in their cars.
In emergency situations, canned goods and microwaveable food are given to visitors, but “we’re not a food shelf, by any means,” Morsch added.
The Closet, a small thrift store, is a more significant part of the shelter’s overall mission. Donated clothing, inexpensively priced, can be purchased by anyone, and the homeless receive vouchers for free shirts, pants and more that are good for 90 days. Children’s vouchers are for a local thrift shop that partners with Our Neighbors’ Place.
“That’s really what our Closet is for,” Morsch said.
All proceeds from The Closet are used to purchase socks and underwear for those in need.
In addition to material support, Our Neighbors’ Place offers guidance for adults and fun for kids. Homelessness is stressful for children and affects their performance in school, among other things. Through the children’s program, volunteers chaperone trips to zoos, museums and other educational sites.
Supported through fundraisers, the program is “opening up a door they might never have had an opportunity to be involved in,” explained Sutton. “It’s a time for kids to be kids.”
The children’s program needs donations and volunteers to function; last summer, Our Neighbors’ Place raised funds for that purpose through a benefit ride with the Circuit Riders Motorcycle Ministry.
“We hope to continue that through future years,” she added.
Although Morsch writes for grants and Our Neighbors’ Place appeals to corporate interests for support, more than 90 percent of the shelter’s funding comes from private donors.
It’s “awesome, but also kind of scary,” Morsch commented. In the event of another recession, private donations could dwindle and endanger the shelter financially, just when the community most needs its services.
Our Neighbors’ Place has a steady supply of utility funding, donated from local churches through an economy-of-scale system. When the first apartments were being rented, board members knew they’d need a steady source of income to pay for electricity, water and the like. Since 2010, local churches have been supplying that money. Bigger congregations are responsible for a larger percentage of costs than small ones.
“That’s how we got started,” Sutton added. “All of the pastors here in River Falls have shown their support.”
Morsch and Sutton are pleased by their community’s response to homelessness, but they feel it remains a largely invisible problem in many cities and villages, and they hope to attract more volunteers from the surrounding rural area.
Shelters need volunteers and donations, they said, but communities also need to have conversations about homelessness.
“People need to open their eyes and see the problem,” Morsch said.
Donations can be sent to:
Our Neighbors’ Place
122 West Johnson St.
River Falls, WI