Parishes help build houses, provide for needs of the homeless

| May 10, 2019 | 0 Comments
Kevin Cavanaugh, foreground, helps a Holy Hammers crew of volunteers build a duplex in St. Paul April 10 through Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity. A member of St. Odilia in Shoreview, Cavanaugh is among volunteers who help the nonprofit organization build affordable homes every year.

Kevin Cavanaugh, foreground, helps a Holy Hammers crew of volunteers build a duplex in St. Paul April 10 through Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity. A member of St. Odilia in Shoreview, Cavanaugh is among volunteers who help the nonprofit organization build affordable homes every year. MATT HAUGE | COURTESY TWIN CITIES HABITAT FOR HUMANITY

Faced with a growing number of people who are homeless in Minnesota, state and local governments are amping up efforts this year to build affordable housing.

Jim Colten of Corpus Christi in Roseville, meanwhile, has been doing what he can for the last 17 years — one wall at time — by joining members of his parish and others to build homes for low-income families through Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity.

Colten and his parish are part of a coalition of 15 faith communities, known as the Holy Hammers, that has helped build 33 homes in the metro area since 1999. The same coalition has donated more than $1.5 million to help fund those projects.

“We’re God’s hands on earth,” said Colten, 69, explaining his take on living out the Catholic faith by serving others. “That’s what he chose, and that’s what we should do. This (Holy Hammers), and other social justice efforts at Corpus Christi are an important fruit of the parish.”

Parish services

Corpus Christi and fellow Holy Hammer members St. Odilia in Shoreview and St. Rose of Lima in Roseville are just one example of the ways parishes across the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis help the poor and homeless as part of Christ’s call to feed the hungry and offer drink to the thirsty, said Dale Hennen, parish services specialist in the archdiocese’s Office of Parish and Clergy Services.

Some parishes, such as St. Mark in St. Paul, provide temporary shelter in school classrooms, gymnasiums and other spaces through Project Home, a program run by Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul, a coalition of faith communities.

Other parishes, such as St. Joseph the Worker in Maple Grove, do similar work through Families Moving Forward, part of Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, also in St. Paul.

Assumption in downtown St. Paul earmarks part of its annual budget to Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which helps the homeless and others in need. In addition, many parishioners donate to Catholic Charities on their own, and help serve hot meals at the agency’s homeless shelter near the parish, said Father Paul Treacy, pastor.

Food and clothing drives; knitting ministries for blankets, hats and mittens; emergency vouchers for transportation, rent and utility bills; referrals for affordable health care, including mental health; and similar services are among many other ways parishes lend a hand to the poor and homeless, Hennen said.

All that work comes on top of parishes administering the sacraments, evangelizing and providing faith formation, as well as a variety of altogether different ministries, such as helping women challenged with an unexpected pregnancy and assisting immigrants, Hennen said.

“It shows an awareness of the seriousness of homelessness,” he said of parishes helping those without a home, and often taking on more than one such ministry, “both in terms of what it does to a person or a family who is homeless, and what it takes to move someone into a more secure housing situation.”

“I’ve never been homeless,” Hennen said. “But (it must be very difficult) not to have secure housing, no protection from the heat, no place to sleep, to cook. Such basic human necessities.”

Housing InitiativesAbout two-thirds of Minnesota’s homeless live in St. Paul or Minneapolis. Those cities are responding to a growing need for affordable housing:

City of St. Paul

The City Council in December approved Mayor Melvin Carter’s creation of a trust fund to help create and maintain affordable housing. Marking the first direct commitment of city resources to affordable housing in several years, the council also voted to place a one-time, $10 million investment and $2 million annually into the fund.
Money from the trust fund will be used in coming months on:

  • A pilot program of rental assistance for qualifying families with children in school.
  • Increases in spending on current housing programs, including:
    a) $3.5 million to build affordable rental units targeted to families of four with annual incomes of $28,290 to $47,150.
    b) $3 million to help developers finance home building on vacant lots or to rehabilitate vacant houses.

City of Minneapolis

The City Council has adopted a Minneapolis 2040 plan that eliminates single-family zoning, allowing buildings with up to three units anywhere in the city. Larger and denser projects can be built along rapid bus and light rail lines.
The fiscal 2019 budget calls for $45.3 million in new programs and additional funding for existing efforts to create affordable housing, including:

  • $21 million into the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund to suport developers of low-income, multifamily units.
  • $6.7 million to help develop new housing on city-owned vacant lots, reduce racial disparity in home ownership, provide home ownership education and lending.
  • $4.5 million to preserve affordable housing and provide a tenant services hotline and legal services for low-income renters facing eviction or habitability issues.

Wider lens

Preventing homelessness and helping people already without a home takes work from everyone in a community, far beyond what parishes alone can do, Hennen said. Systemic issues can include unemployment and low wages, lack of affordable housing, and lack of mental health and other health care services, he said. Allowed to fester, those challenges can create an unjust society, he said.

“For a system to be sustainable, it has to be just,” Hennen said. “Otherwise, it will erode and feed on itself. And of course, therein lies the big challenge: What does that mean? How will that be applied?”

One action area for state and local governments this year is increased funding to build affordable housing and keep low-income earners in their homes.

Minneapolis, for example, has pumped $21 million into its Affordable Housing Trust Fund to support developers who want to build or maintain multi-family developments for low-income residents. The city also approved a new program called “Stable Homes, Stable Schools” to provide
$3 million in emergency rental assistance to families in the school system on the brink of homelessness.

The state Legislature is debating a variety of ways to build and preserve affordable housing as the legislative session winds down to a scheduled May 20 close. Proposals from Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, include $150 million in housing bonds. Advocates of affordable housing held a rally at the State Capitol in St. Paul May 6 to draw attention to the issue.

That kind of action, including initiatives in St. Paul, comes after highly visible encampments of homeless people last fall in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

In addition, a recent study confirmed what the encampments indicated — the number of homeless in Minnesota has risen to a record high.

More than 10,000 people in the state — 10,233, up 10 percent from 9,312 in 2015 — were without a home on Oct. 25, according to a survey of homeless shelters, transitional housing programs and people found on the street. Conducted every three years by the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in St. Paul, a nonprofit community organization, the study found that the number of homeless adults increased by 25 percent. And the number of people not in a formal shelter increased by 62 percent. (Study reveals record number of homeless in Minnesota.)

One wall at a time

Kevin Cavanaugh, 69, of St. Odilia in Shoreview, and one of the Holy Hammers helping Habitat for Humanity, also is doing what he can to build more affordable housing. Wielding a hammer at a home under construction in St. Paul — despite a late-spring, heavy snowfall — Cavanaugh said in April that he’s seen a lot homes in his travels. As a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1980s, he helped people in homes in Tunisia made from mud and rocks, with dirt floors. What mattered was a sense of place, dignity and protection from the elements, he said.

“It’s a place to come back to every day,” he said. “A place to relax. Home is a sense of community, too. It’s having neighbors who know you, visiting, inviting them in. That is very important.”

Colten said he’s met some of the families Habitat for Humanity has helped. One memory in particular stands out, although it happened as long as 10 years ago.

“One of the nicest days was putting together the finishing touches on a house, and the whole family showed up,” he said. “Watching the kids running around, claiming their bedrooms — that was a good day.”


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