Groups bring first homeless shelter to Northland
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY - Leslie Pfreim believes that when the Holy Spirit wants something to happen, it happens.
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Salvation Army Lt. Col. Theodore Dalberg and Metro Social Services Director Joyce Schau have teamed with Catholic Charities and north-of-the-river parishes to bring the first homeless shelter to Kansas City's Northland suburbs.
Pfreim, and nine other women of St. Gabriel Archangel Parish belonging to a small base Christian community, completed a discernment retreat about a year ago where they decided that their special mission would be to serve the homeless.
Then they learned that the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities were working on a plan to open the first homeless shelter in the suburban Northland.
"We went to our pastor and said, 'We need to get involved in this,'" said Pfreim, a pastoral associate at the parish in Kansas City, north.
The pastor, Benedictine Father Karl Barmann, didn't even ask why or how, Pfreim said. He just said do it.
"He is a person who has it on his horizon to serve the needy," Pfreim said. "We are not the richest parish, but we are a very generous parish. All you have to do around here is ask, especially when it comes to caring for the needy."
The parish invited Joyce Schau, director of the Salvation Army's Metro Social Services Department, and other Salvation Army officials to speak about plans for the shelter at the end of all Masses in mid-July. From that single weekend at one Northland parish came a special collection of some $2,000 for the shelter, a pledge to sponsor and furnish one of the shelter's bedrooms, and a pledge for parish volunteers to cook one meal a month for the shelter's occupants.
Schau said the support from St. Gabriel Archangel was inspiring, but more will be needed if the shelter is to open and operate.
Schau noted that the Salvation Army, suffering like all charities in the ongoing economic downturn, is already operating homeless shelters in midtown Kansas City, Mo., and in Kansas in Olathe and Kansas City.
But when Mike Halterman, CEO of Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph, proposed that the Salvation Army open a Northland shelter with Catholic Charities help, Schau said the Army couldn't say no.
"We're the Salvation Army. That's not in our vocabulary," she said. "We said we'll take the lead, but we have limited resources to commit to it. It will have to be a community effort."
Halterman said the need for a shelter in the apparently middle-class Clay and Platte County suburbs surfaced quickly when Catholic Charities asked parishes throughout the diocese to identify social services that were most needed in their communities.
In Clay and Platte County, that process led to the creation of the Northland Unmet Needs Commission, a coalition of Catholic and other churches and social service agencies throughout the Northland.
The commission almost instantly citied the need for emergency shelter for the homeless, Halterman said.
Halterman agreed to chair a subcommittee to create the shelter.
"The first thing I did was ask the Salvation Army to be a part of it," Halterman said. "They are the experts in homeless shelters."
When the Salvation Army agreed, Catholic Charities stepped up with $5,000 in start-up money, then stepped back into the role of marshaling broad community support, he said.
"Catholic Charities is not in control here, and that doesn't bother me a bit," Halterman said. "We are part of a larger group that is trying to meet needs in the community, and we don't have to be in control of everything."
Halterman said the need for the shelter and transitional living programs to get the homeless back on their feet was obvious to people working in social services north of the river. They see it face-to-face every day, he said.
"On any given night in the Northland area, there are 100 persons in need of shelter," he said. "Within 90 days, a lot of them find a job and are on their way to getting back on their feet. We can help them with housing."
Halterman and Schau said the homeless, both in the suburbs and in the urban core, no longer fit a stereotype of a single person with mental health or substance abuse problems.
In fact, as the economy worsens and job layoffs add up, social service agencies are seeing once middle-class families whose breadwinners lost solid jobs and are suddenly out on the streets, Halterman said.
Schau said that experience is echoed in Olathe, the suburban county seat of affluent Johnson County, Kan., where the Salvation Army operates a 42-bed shelter.
"What I think we will find in the Northland are families who were always one paycheck away from homelessness, and then something happened. It could have been the loss of a job, or it could have been an illness," Schau said.
The loss of a paycheck to a suburban family can quickly turn into homelessness, she said.
"In the Northland, like Johnson County, there aren't a lot of affordable rentals," Schau said. "It's hard to be poor in an affluent community."
Schau said the Salvation Army hopes to raise enough money to open the shelter by Oct. 1 and is seeking federal government funds to hire staff and operate transitional living programs.
The Salvation Army and Catholic Charities have joined in a grant application to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. If funded, programs at the Northland shelter will give homeless families time to find jobs and secure permanent housing solutions, Schau said.
Schau said a shelter that merely warehouses the homeless without addressing the causes of their homelessness solves nothing.
"Every shelter is needed, but shelters are not the permanent answer," she said. "You can't let people stay homeless forever. You have to move them to self-sufficiency."
But Schau said the Salvation Army must have funding in place before it can open the Northland shelter.
"We can't hire staff then tell them three months later we have to close because there is no money," she said.
"But that is a leap of faith you sometimes have to take," Schau said. "You have to say, 'This is what God wants you to do, and he will provide.'"
The Northland shelter will be located in a residential neighborhood that already has other group homes for the developmentally disabled, Schau said. It is near a bus line and commercial centers.
She declined to give the specific address, however, saying that the property owner is concerned about neighborhood reaction. Schau noted that the property has already received a special-use permit from the City of Gladstone. That process required the notification of surrounding property owners.
"It is a quiet residential area, and we will do our part to keep it that way," Schau said.
The homeless shelter will have 20 beds for up to four families and four single women.
Schau predicted that referrals from Northland churches and social service agencies will quickly fill the shelter with clients.
Pfreim said the people of St. Gabriel Archangel Parish are anxiously waiting for the Salvation Army to give the word.
Already, the parish has collected additional furniture, bedding, household goods and cash.
"It's beginning to look like a garage sale around here," she said.
Meanwhile, the need for the shelter is growing more urgent, she said.
"We get a minimum of 25 calls a week asking for assistance," Pfreim said. "We get three or four calls a week from families who say, 'We just got evicted.' There are people living in the parking garage at Antioch Mall. There are people living under the bridge by the fountain (at Vivion Road and North Oak Trafficway). We have people living right across the street (from St. Gabriel) in Winwood Park.
"This is the Northland," Pfreim said. "It's not just an inner-city problem any more."
Father Jerry Waris, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, north, said Catholic parishes in the Northland will respond as St. Gabriel did.
"I'm confident that the Catholic community, as it always has, will respond to people in need," he said. "We at St. Patrick's are going to support it as best we can. Homelessness is a problem all over, and a shelter is certainly needed here."
Lt. Col. Theodore Dalberg, divisional commander of the Salvation Army in Kansas City, said he counts on that support.
"We appreciate the support of the Catholic community a great deal," he said. "We share a heart of compassion, particularly for the homeless."