Homelessness in Anoka County: Volunteers do their part to help the homeless

Staff Writer
I cover the cities of Andover, Blaine and Ramsey. I have worked at ABC Newspapers since August 2007.

Homelessness is not someone else’s problem. It’s here in Anoka County, and various organizations are working to address it. In a special three-part series, ABC Newspapers reporters dive into the issue to shine a light on what homelessness looks like locally and how organizations across the county are banding together to eliminate it.

Week one defines the problem and the experience of homelessness. Week two explores how homelessness touches Anoka County youth. Week three describes various ways members of the community can help.

If you or someone you know are in need of housing, call one of the following points of access in Anoka County:

-If you are a single adult, call
Stepping Stone Emergency Housing at 763-323-7006.

-If you are part of a family seeking housing, call
      The Salvation Army at 763-755-6873.

-If you are age 21 or younger, call the YMCA at 763-493-3052.

Karrie Schaaf has talked with many Anoka County residents who were not aware that homelessness is a problem in their communities until they started volunteering for organizations that assist the homeless.

“Once they realize that this is something going on in Anoka County, they said, ‘I have to do something,’” said Anoka-Hennepin School District’s homeless liaison and a volunteer at Hope 4 Youth.

Hope 4 Youth volunteer food coordinator Linnea Grey preps a meal of sloppy joe’s with her Oak Grove neightbor and fellow volunteer Wendy Everth. Photo by Eric Hagen
Hope 4 Youth volunteer food coordinator Linnea Grey preps a meal of sloppy joe’s with her Oak Grove neightbor and fellow volunteer Wendy Everth. Photo by Eric Hagen

“Feed My Starving Children is great and I went and packaged all these meals and fed all these amazing kids in another country, but they’re like, ‘Wait a minute, I need to feed kids in my own community,’” Schaaf said.

Gifts of money and donations of a can of soup, a box of crackers or toiletries are always welcome and the easiest way to make a difference, but the organizations that help Anoka County’s homeless need volunteers to sort the nonperishable food, cook or deliver meals, lead group sessions, offer extra supervision, offer tips on resume writing and searching for jobs and much more.

“They are amazing, compassionate, do-all-things-for-all-people kind of people. We love our volunteers,” said Sue Peterson, case manager for Family Promise of Anoka County, which networks with churches to help the homeless.

Feeding the homeless

When Pentair has food to donate from its cafeteria, Lori Schoonover and other volunteers for Stepping Stone Emergency Housing make the short drive over to the Anoka company to pick up food for the 66 adults staying at the shelter. Local restaurants and schools also donate leftovers so Stepping Stone guests get three meals a day.

“I have to do something where I’m helping someone else. That’s how I’ve always been,” said Schoonover, a retired U.S. Army nurse.

Linnea Grey is known as “the food angel” at Hope 4 Youth because she coordinates the daily meals at the youth homeless drop-in center in Anoka.

With the large number of volunteer cooks on Grey’s list, some cook no more than one meal a month. But they must whip up a dish for up to 25 kids at home and bring it to Hope 4 Youth since there is no kitchen on-site. Therefore, meals prepared in slow cookers are the standard choice.

“We have a list of a couple hundred, but 50 to 75 are the really active volunteers,” said Grey, a pastor at Northgate Church in Ramsey. “It does make a difference.”

Family Promise of Anoka County is a network of 16 Anoka County churches that take turns giving homeless families shelter for the night. Before their heads hit the pillows, food prepared at the church with money provided by the congregation or home-cooked meals brought in provide as many as 14 people a warm meal every night.

A light morning breakfast of cereal bars, fruit and juice and a sack lunch are given to them the next day as they try to find leads on housing within a 90-day period, which is approximately how long the family has before Family Promise needs to offer housing to one of the 25 families on average on the waiting list, Peterson said. Family Promise can only help 14 people, no more than four families, at once. Peterson said families are made aware of the time limit when they arrive and are reminded. If they find other housing but need time to move, Family Promise would grant an extension beyond the 90 days.

Much more than food

These organizations need more than master chefs, however.

When asked what volunteers help with, Meagan Brostrom replied, “everything.”

Brostrom recruits volunteers for Stepping Stone. The organization’s roster fluctuates between 100 and 150 volunteers. Everyone has a unique talent or job skill, and Brostrom rattled off the many things volunteers do.

One or two physicians from Allina Clinic come to Stepping Stone once a week for health screenings. Volunteers lead alcohol and drug addiction counseling sessions. They work at the front desk to buzz people in the building and make sure everyone signs in and out. Earlier this spring, they helped answer basic tax filing questions.

A couple of volunteers also taught knitting and how to make your own laundry detergent.

A librarian from the Rum River Library in Anoka, Monica Campbell, comes to Stepping Stone for two hours every Thursday afternoon to help with immigration, legal or housing applications that must be done online. She also helps those that are updating or creating resumes and talks about the free programming

Monica Campbel assists Ozzie Laibson-Brown in the computer lab of the Stepping Stone Emergency Housing shelter in Anoka. The Rum River Library employee comes every Thursday afternoon to help homeless people with resume writing or searching for a job or social services programs. Photo by Eric Hagen
Monica Campbel assists Ozzie Laibson-Brown in the computer lab of the Stepping Stone Emergency Housing shelter in Anoka. The Rum River Library employee comes every Thursday afternoon to help homeless people with resume writing or searching for a job or social services programs. Photo by Eric Hagen

available at Anoka County Libraries.

“Many talk about how grateful they are to have a place to live and speak of their new life at Stepping Stone, where they are getting the assistance they need to be self-sufficient, productive citizens,” Campbell said. “It’s an honor to play a small part in helping folks achieve their goals.”

Family Promise has a core of 800 volunteers, which breaks down to about 50 to 60 volunteers at each of the 16 host churches. They provide an evening meal, sleeping accommodations, and morning transportation to a “day center” where families can bathe, do their laundry, use the computer lab to search for employment or permanent housing and work with a case manager. Paid staff are in charge of the day center on weekdays. Volunteers staff the center on weekends, Peterson said.

In February, one month before its two-year anniversary, Hope 4 Youth was able to hire its first paid volunteer coordinator.

There are about 500 volunteers at Hope 4 Youth – all go through a background check. With so many volunteers, there is a role for everyone. Some visit community groups to share the story of Hope 4 Youth. There always needs to be someone at the front desk ready to greet visitors. Others come in to clean on the weekends. A housing committee recently raised more than $1 million so Hope 4 Youth can open an overnight youth shelter.

What Hope 4 Youth really needs are what it calls “lead youth mentors,” who are essentially the supervisors of every shift. Schaaf said it would be great if these new volunteers had a social work or nursing background.

There are between 15 and 20 lead mentors right now at Hope 4 Youth and it could use another dozen more.

The teens at Hope 4 Youth could always use trusted mentors. If volunteers consistently show up on the same day of the week, some kids will plan their day around that schedule.

Schaaf remembers a kid who was excited about a new job until he found out he was scheduled to work Tuesdays.

“‘That’s Paul’s day. I can’t miss Tuesdays with Paul,’” Schaaf said in recollecting the story.

The boss had assumed this kid would not want to work weekends and happily rearranged the work schedule so he could have Tuesdays off to spend time with his mentor, Schaaf said.

“You need mentors. You need people to believe in you,” said Sue Rosendahl, a social worker at the Salvation Army in Coon Rapids.

Kelly Schmaltz, 46, has been homeless the last 15 years with her son, Alex Campbell.

“I know one thing for sure. We’ll never be homeless after we leave (Stepping Stone),” Schmaltz said. “There’s just too many people behind you saying you can do it, let me help you. Here’s a step-by-step. You slowly get that step done and you go to the next one. And everybody is a cheerleader. They really make you feel good about even little accomplishments that you make. I’ve never experienced anything like this before in my life.”

[email protected]

Sue Austreng ([email protected]) and Olivia Alveshere ([email protected]) also contributed to this article.

  • charlene stinson

    Wow,,it’s about time we help our OWN needy…God bless

  • Kathie Whelchel

    The most important thing we can do for our homeless is find them stable housing. How can students truly concentrate on their studies when they are wondering whether they will have a place to sleep at night. I sincerely hope the Coon Rapids City Coucil will approve the plans for a dormitory for young people.