By: Amanda Willis
It became clear to the New Ulm Ministerial Association’s eight member churches that homelessness was a big issue after they learned that there wasn’t a homeless shelter anywhere in Brown County.
“Here in New Ulm, there was a feeling that we don’t have a homeless problem, but through [nearby] Oakwood UMC, we learned that there were 16 students at the [local elementary] school that didn’t have a permanent address,” said Rev. Jo Anne Taylor of First United Methodist Church in New Ulm.
Many of the community’s “homeless” families stay on couches of friends and family, but they don’t have a permanent and stable residence.
That’s where First UMC comes in.
After a youth program that once occupied a home across the street from the church moved inside the church, the congregation found itself with an empty house.
First UMC had the facility and Catholic Charities had a proven program to help those in need. The two groups, along with the New Ulm Ministerial Association, decided to band together to open a homeless shelter for needy people in their community—and they are working to making that happen.
Once the NUMAS (New Ulm Ministerial Association Shelter) House is open, it will be able to house and assist three families at a time; the program is starting small to remain viable and sustainable.
The home will provide emergency shelter, counseling, and education to single-mother homeless families so their children can remain enrolled in local schools. Right now, the county sends families that need help to Mankato or St. Cloud—which interrupts the progress made by local social workers and teachers who have been working with the family.
Taylor explained that single mothers represent one of the most at-risk groups. Children in school who lack a consistent home-based structure suffer academically. Keeping kids in the district provides some stability.
Families will receive intensive case management and counseling through Catholic Charities. They will take classes through Brown County and Catholic Charities that focus on how to be a good tenant, how to restore a credit score, parenting skills, how to deal with conflict resolution, and basic nutrition. They will be able to stay in the shelter for up to 90 days.
“It takes 60 to 90 days of intensive counseling for someone who has run out of options to peel back all the layers and get down to the root causes of homelessness,” Taylor said. “That last 30 days is where things start to happen.”
Leasing the home to NUMAS at-cost allows the church to continue its mission of reaching out to the community to heal a broken world. The Mission-Outreach-Evangelism team has been key in making the shelter a reality.
Two or three times a year, team Chair Bill Day takes a group of First UMC members to Mankato or the Twin Cities to serve at food shelters.
“Most of our church members lead a comfortable life and don’t see the other side,” Day said. Now that the church community understands there is a homelessness issue in New Ulm, he believes they will be very willing to stand in support of the shelter.
The steps necessary to open a shelter have happened very quickly. The group has been working with a general contractor who drew up the plans for the remodel of the house, and a local law firm stepped forward to help the group achieve nonprofit, tax-exempt status.
A group of nurses led by Marilyn Swan, a First UMC member, started the remodeling process on a hot July weekend. Swan, three other nurses from outside of Brown County, and another church volunteer helped pull down ceiling tile in two rooms and pull up the carpet in three upstairs rooms.
“As nurses, we are very interested in social justice and taking a proactive approach to things we’re facing in society,” Swan said. She added that the other volunteers were aware of the lack of shelters in Brown County and were eager to help out.
The association has just started to get the word out about the money needed to complete the project. It’s a lofty fundraising goal—$100,000 is needed to gut and remodel the kitchen, convert a half-bathroom into a full bathroom, and complete some basic updates, and another $25,000 to operate the home for the first year.
But grant application funds are available and smaller organizations have promised support for the program, including the Lions Club, which gave $1,000. Volunteer workers are needed for the electrical and plumbing work.
“It’s daunting to see we need six figures, but I have faith we can overcome those barriers,” Swan said. “When folks see there is a plan, then individuals will step up.”
Families will learn about the shelter through the school district. The intake process has been discussed in detail through a partnership with the Domus Transitional House in St. Cloud, which shared its process and best practices with the NUMAS House and is willing to help.
Through its work on the homeless shelter, First UMC is sharing God’s love with its community and answering God’s call to heal a broken world. Taylor encourages other congregations to find and meet the needs in their own communities.
“Like [writer and theologian] Frederick Buechner said, ‘The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,’” she said.
Amanda Willis is communications associate for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church