UNITED WE STAND: A Place for You interim acting director Vicki VanderVegt (center) with founders Mary Kay Sloan and Eugene Biever.
The Goal: Sustainable Shelter
A Place For You creates a new revenue stream to support transitional housing for homeless adults in Central Minnesota.
By Andy Steiner | Photography by Michael Schoenecker
Homelessness is an issue across Minnesota. In rural areas of the state, however, the problem often is less obvious to the casual observer. That’s certainly the case in Pine, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs, Carleton and Chisago counties. In fact, if you ask the right people in these communities, they’ll tell you about local residents who struggle to keep roofs over their heads.
People on the economic edge in Greater Minnesota may not be out asking for money on busy street corners, but they do live here, according to Justin Jahnz, manager of energy services and strategic projects for East Central Energy (ECE), a member-owned electric cooperative headquartered in Braham. Unfortunately, programs designed to help get these vulnerable community members back on their feet are few and far between.
“(People’s) situations are often hidden,” Jahnz said. “They might be staying with someone or moving from one place to the next, but they don’t have a home of their own. There are very few options for people in that situation in this area, and so out of necessity they often exist under the radar.”
Housing advocates agree that homelessness—which includes people living in temporary arrangements as well as those without any kind of shelter—is an issue statewide. In 2017, there were 862 homeless people living in Central Minnesota, according to the Institute for Community Alliances, a Des Moines-based nonprofit organization that helps communities address housing instability, homelessness, food insecurity and related issues. That’s up from 669 people in 2016 and 541 in 2010.
“Everywhere I go, in every corner of Minnesota, emergency shelter is identified as a major need,” said Matt Traynor, director of organizing for the Minnesota Coalition For the Homeless. “It’s not just a problem in the Cities and Duluth. It’s an issue in Greater Minnesota, too.”
Nowhere to Go
For many years, the only places where homeless single adults could find emergency housing between the Twin Cities and Duluth was at local churches. Then, a little over five years ago, a group of concerned residents in Pine City decided something had to be done. The group—led by local volunteers Mary Kay Sloan and Eugene Biever, who had retired as the president of Pine Technical & Community College—decided to found a shelter that would offer transitional housing, resource assistance, mental health counseling and skill-building support.
It was a big project, but the team was motivated to get it done, said Chris Fastner, Initiative Foundation senior program manager for nonprofit development.
Biever had volunteered as a deacon in his church and saw first-hand the needs of the community. Under Biever and Sloan’s leadership, the group located a building, which had once been an Allina Health System clinic, in downtown Pine City that they felt would be the perfect location for their shelter. They persuaded Allina to donate the building.
“It was impressive,” said Fastner. “They worked with volunteers and raised money to renovate the whole thing. It was a true grassroots effort.”
When renovations on the building were complete, A Place For You had rooms for 10 residents, with women and men housed in separate portions of the building. The program, which is funded by grants and contributions from a variety of sources, including the Initiative Foundation, has eight full- and part-time paid employees. A large portion of its day-to-day operations are completed by community volunteers.
Fastner believes this strong corps of volunteers is a chief asset for A Place For You. “This place is a living example of the power of community,” he said, adding that volunteers even provide a hot evening meal for shelter residents. “It’s a real commitment, a way to make residents feel welcome and cared for during their stay.”
The community’s commitment includes helping shelter residents gain the skills they need to find affordable housing and get back on their feet—financially and emotionally. “This has never been just a place for people to sleep,” Fastner said. “Their real goal is to help clients become part of the community, to get connected and build supportive relationships so they can plant roots for themselves.”
Keeping the program running smoothyl requires a high level of community committment, said Vicki VanderVegt, A Place For You’s interim executive director. Organizers worked hard to build a program that would stay strong and last well into the future. They wanted to make a difference in the lives of everyone involved—residents and volunteers.
The program’s founders “did a superb job of researching what it takes to form and run a shelter and where funding might come from,” VanderVegt said. “They held community input meetings. They wanted to build a place that would increase people’s chances of finding and maintaining stable housing. They wanted to support that positive trajectory.” Each year, the shelter provides housing for 80 to 90 adults.
In addition to preparing meals, volunteers maintain the building and its grounds, work the front desk, clean, catalogue donations, serve as mentors for residents and hold positions on the shelter’s board of directors.
Recently, when the building’s HVAC system needed upgrading, board members reached out to East Central Energy. The cooperative offered to install a low-cost, high-efficiency heat-pump system. “We financed 75 percent of the cost of the HVAC equipment,” Jahnz said. The shelter raised money to cover the rest.
The HVAC upgrade was a perfect project for the energy cooperative, said Cindy Rolain, ECE’s community relations coordinator. “We’re a cooperative and a grassroots organization,” Rolain said. “A Place For You is the same: It’s people in the community seeing a need and pooling their money, time and commitment to improve the quality of life for everyone.”
Even though community support for A Place For You remains high, the program’s employees and core volunteers wanted to make sure that the shelter remained on stable financial footing for the future. With that in mind, a group completed a two-part financial resiliency training program offered by the Initiative Foundation designed to help nonprofits develop alternative revenue sources.
“We depend on three sources of revenue: grants, individual donations and corporate donations,” VanderVegt explained. “Sometimes donors get compassion fatigue, and there is so much need to go around.”
With the goal of diversifying the nonprofit’s sources of financial support, the board decided to turn an old storage area in the back of the shelter into Furnishings For You, a store that sells donated furniture at affordable prices. A team of volunteers oversaw renovation of the space and transformed it into a store. All profits from the volunteer-run shop, which opened earlier this summer, will go to the shelter.
So far, Furnishings For You is proving to be a promising revenue stream. “Just over a month ago, I got an email from the Furnishings For You team,” said Fastner. “They were excited to report they opened the doors on their social enterprise and made $500 on the very first day.”
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