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Ministry with People Experiencing Homelessness in a Pandemic Winter

Recommit to treating people experiencing homelessness with dignity
by Faith+Lead | December 16, 2020

By Melissa Pohlman

Our Story

Each person who finds themselves without a place to sleep tonight has their own unique story of how that came to be their experience. Folks visit my downtown church to get clothing or a meal, to see a nurse and to organize with other houseless people so that shelters are places of dignity. We have been doing this work for more than 50 years, but this year has been unique, to say the least.

When the pandemic began in March we generally had over 300 people each week who came through our building to meet their basic needs and change the conditions of being homeless in Minneapolis. In the space of a week everything was different, and nothing was different. Our county started moving people who were high risk out of the shelters and into hotels. People who had homes were encouraged to stay in them. And every Monday, folks still came to our door for a meal. Many of the free meals in the community stopped operating because their volunteers were high risk. In response, we figured out how to provide meals to go and nursing care in a masked and socially distanced way because people were going hungry and not seeking important medical care at clinics. 

Then a member of the Minneapolis Police Department knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes and killed him. Big Floyd was a member of our community: he ate a meal with us on Mondays and worked at one of the nearby shelters. It shattered our community. 

The folks who were sleeping outside had to move in the middle of the night when the violence and the fires threatened their encampments. An already devastated community was reminded again that their lives didn’t matter to the people who were supposed to protect them. The places where people were sleeping outside grew and grew and grew. They also stopped hiding under bridges and down by the river. They set up encampments in our city parks. Neighbors came out and helped with laundry and meals, but some neighbors grew fearful and didn’t see the people sleeping outside as worthy of our parks.

Now it is winter in Minnesota. We had an early, heavy snow and then a strangely warm December. The pandemic continues, police brutality continues, institutional racism that keeps our folks unhoused continues. While we continue with our Monday meal and the Health Commons, we are all tired. The folks who have been moved from shelter to hotel to shelter to isolation hotel to a tent in a park to a hotel and back to the shelter are more tired.  The resources they once relied on have changed and continue to change by the week based on good guidance by the Health Department. 

Your Story

This is where you come in. I know that some of these experiences are unique to us in Minneapolis, but so much more of this is not. Every person who doesn’t have a place to sleep tonight is a person. A person who has their own stories, needs and wants, each of them beloved by God and other people. 

  • What do these persons in your community need tonight? 
  • Do you know how a person who suddenly is experiencing homelessness might get into a shelter or a hotel in your community? 
  • Who are the partners in the community who provide these services? 
  • Are they trusted by the people who use their services? 

But first and foremost: Who do you know who has experienced homelessness? Would they be willing to have a conversation about their experiences with you? They are the best expert on their own experience. 

People like me have heard lots of stories over the years, but I have been stably housed my entire life. I do not know what it is like to worry about where I will sleep tonight, and so if others who work in this field try to tell you they know what it’s like without lived experience, run. 

When someone trusts you with their own story of vulnerability it is an honor, and it is how we build communities of mutuality. 

Mutuality isn’t charity. It is recognizing that we all have something to offer to one another. 

The heart of what churches can do right now is what we do best: build and leverage relationships. 

If you drive by someone holding a sign every morning at the freeway on ramp, roll down your window and introduce yourself. Over the space of a week, they may discover that you are a trustworthy person; and you might find out how you can actually help them, or at the very least they will now be a person in your sight instead of a label or a sign. 

So many of our churches have been places where folks can gather for a community meal. Much of that work was put on hold with the pandemic. Maybe it’s time to think about how you can reopen and do it in the safest way possible. The ways churches have been creative in this time has been astounding; your creativity can help lessen the burden for folks who need a meal. 

Also, churches have relationships with agencies that house and shelter people. Find out from them what they need. It might be handmade masks or a meal brought in on a regular basis, or it might be more volunteers or leads on who is looking for a job.  It might be donations to help keep sick folks in hotels, separated from healthy folks. 

You might be a church who has landlords as part of your community. Ask them what they need in this time in order to provide deeply affordable housing to the folks who need it most. Some churches are at the forefront of putting together landlord mitigation funds so that when a landlord does take a risk on housing someone without perfect credit or a gap in their rental record, if that tenant isn’t successful there is a pot of money the landlord can apply to for repairing the property. It’s a fund that rarely gets used because people are so thankful to be housed that they take care of their rented home, but it gives landlords the confidence to take a risk and know they won’t lose their property if something goes wrong.

Communities of Mutuality

In a year full of unique challenges and unique opportunities, our commitment to one another remains the same. We are all God’s people together and our housing status doesn’t invalidate our belovedness. For those of us who are housed, this is the time we need to recommit to seeing people without a permanent address as our siblings and treat them in the ways they want to be treated, with dignity, respect and relationships of mutuality.  

About the Author
Melissa Pohlman is the Pastor for Community at Central Lutheran Church in Downtown Minneapolis. She lives in North Minneapolis with her husband Larye and two kids, Myles and Lauryn. She believes deeply that housing is a human right and that we are called to come alongside folks who lack housing and hear how we can address this issue together.

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