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Homelessness: More than a roof over their heads

Another step toward helping the homeless was taken last month when a Transitional House was set up by the local group Our Neighbors' Place. Formerly a rental property next to and owned by St. Bridget Catholic Church, the two-story house will offer temporary lodgings for one homeless family at a time as the adults are guided back to an independent way of living. Families will come to the Transitional House from Grace Place in Somerset, which takes in homeless families and individuals in St. Croix and Pier...

What began earlier this year as an effort to find an overnight shelter for the local homeless population has evolved into something larger and hopefully more productive.

Mary Jo Sutton, chairwoman of Our Neighbors' Place, said what her local group aims for "goes way beyond" a place for transients to crash at night.

"The vision has to be larger than a transient shelter," she said. "It can't be that narrow. We want to have a network of services in place to react to the needs of people who are facing the challenges of a financial crisis."

That approach fits into Our Neighbors' Place mission statement, which says: "...To help people move toward independence and self sufficiency."

Sutton said Our Neighbors Place will guide local people who confront serious, unexpected problems.

"These are glitches in life that come up," she said. "Someone loses a job, gets behind and can't pay bills, then doesn't know what to do or where to turn. That brings on stress, panic and gridlock."

Our Neighbors' Place hopes to be an informational clearinghouse for workplace training and referrals; rental and utilities assistance; finding affordable clothes, food stamps and gas vouchers; access to medical care at the Free Health Clinic of Pierce and St. Croix Counties; how to find and use the River Falls Food Pantry; plus partnering with the local Turningpoint domestic abuse shelter for counseling.

Last month Our Neighbors' Place got a 28-month lease with St. Bridget Church to use one of its rental properties for a Transitional House for a needy family.

A family will be referred there from the Grace Place homeless shelter in Somerset and can stay for up to six months.

During that stay adult family members will receive support so they can work, save their earnings, and prepare to move out into their own apartment or house.

Negotiations are also progressing to set up a Day Center this fall in downtown River Falls.

This facility will be staffed with social workers to steer needy families and individuals to where they can get assistance ranging from medical and employment to transportation and education. Users can also do laundry at the Day Center, have mail delivered and have access to e-mail.

Besides the Transitional House and the Day Center, Our Neighbors' Place continues to rely on the established homeless-shelter system provided by Servant of the Shepherd, 103 N. Fourth St.

Church Parishioners there -- many who were once homeless or struggling with drugs or alcohol addiction -- voluntarily take homeless people into their own homes and give them meals and a place to sleep.

Sue Watters, who handles communications for Our Neighbors' Place, said Servant of the Shepherd has seen about a fivefold increase in homeless needs this year.

One reason for the jump is because of the organizing efforts already being provided by Our Neighbors' Place.

"Those generous parishioners were taking in about two or three people, and now that number is up to about 15," she said.

Some of that load may be reduced once the referral and counseling services designed for the downtown Day Center begin.

Our Neighbors' Place also is searching for a place to set up a permanent shelter for five families/25 individuals.

Last week the city's Plan Commission OK'd a request that will allow such a shelter to be classified as a type of a boarding or rooming house.

After approval for a special use permit by the City Council, a homeless shelter could, in theory, be located in a section of the city where there are rental or apartment properties.

Sutton and Watters said a search is underway to identify, obtain a lease and modify a building for such a site.

When that occurs, various churches and civic groups will be asked to pitch in on a rotational basis for the shelter's staffing and supply needs.

Sutton said Our Neighbors' Place is striving to bring social-service agencies together to avoid duplication and create timely, focused aid to the needy and homeless.

Toward that end, Our Neighbors' Place held a summit Tuesday afternoon at the public library with representatives from Habitat for Humanity, Pierce County UW-Extension, Pierce County Social Services, Turningpoint, River Falls Community Fund, Workforce Resource, the Free Clinic, River Falls Medical Clinic, West CAP, Food Pantry, St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice and others.

In the summit flier, Sutton says: "It is to introduce ourselves to each other and see what programs are already available in the system, channel our resources and have a face and phone number to call when special cases arise or we need a resource."

Watters emphasized that the aim of helping those in a crisis or hardship is "to challenge them to do better. This is not about handouts."

Other updates for Our Neighbors' Place:

n The group will raise money by asking those who run during the River Falls Chamber of Commerce-sponsored Kinni River Trout Trot to collect pledges. The Kinni River Trout Trot is Saturday, Sept. 12, starting at 7:30 a.m. at Veterans Park.

n Aside from the run, donations are always accepted by mailing to Our Neighbors' Place Fund/St. Croix Valley Foundation/516 Second St., Suite 214/Hudson, WI 54016. Our Neighbors' Place has also applied for eight grants.

n For those wishing for more information or how to help, call Sutton at 715-441-9699 or Watters at 425-7540.