Good morning. I’m Lee Blons, the CEO and President of Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative. I’m so pleased to be here to celebrate our partnership with the shared vision that all people have a home.
Beacon, through our collaboration with Bethlehem Lutheran Church and 100 other congregations, provides emergency shelter through our hosting program — Families Moving Forward, develops deeply affordable housing, and advances equitable housing policies.
This morning I will share with you my perspective on the trauma of homelessness and how our faith calls us to respond. I want to thank you for what you have done already and ask you to continue to explore what your faith calls you to do next.
The scripture reading today is on the transfiguration of Jesus. Set on a mountain top, it is a story about where human nature meets God; with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as the bridge between heaven and earth. After this very dramatic and awestruck moment, the disciples are asked to come back down the mountain into community. How will their vision of the divine allow them to live more fully? How does your faith call you to live more fully in community?
Our Families Moving Forward hosting program asks you to be that bridge connecting your faith and the very real human needs that we all have for food, safety and warmth. Can we live more fully into our faith? To live with a generosity of spirit. To be present and walk beside people in their difficult times. To hear God’s call for justice so that all may live a life of meaning and love.
The families that are most changed by the experience are often not the families experiencing homelessness but those that come as hosts. One of my board members says, I didn’t find Families Moving Forward through my faith — I found my faith through Families Moving Forward.
Thank you for the leadership and dedication of so many volunteers for our hosting program. Your Minnetonka campus has been core supporters of this program for over 20 years and will host again next month. This past Christmas, the Minneapolis campus opened its doors for the first time with the support and training of the veteran volunteers from Minnetonka.
I had shared with Pastor Ben last year that finding churches willing to host during Christmas was a challenge. He immediately responded that with a name of Bethlehem that he felt his congregation could find room at the inn for families looking for a place to lay their heads. We know that this calls on families to stretch; to take from your own families to offer hospitality to strangers.
And then you offered even more after the fire at the Drake Hotel on Christmas morning put a strain on the countywide shelter system for families experiencing homelessness. We put out a call for help to our congregations. And Pastor Ben turned to you and asked – can we do one more week of hospitality? By that afternoon, it was a clear resounding yes! Thank you for your generosity of spirit and time.
Hosting families is often both extraordinarily rewarding and challenging. The tasks can seem the same as hosting a teen sleep-in: food, beds, activities. But the emotions are quite different for the parents and children experiencing homelessness. It has been a hard journey to arrive at the door of Bethlehem.
For most families, homelessness doesn’t happen overnight. It happens slowly over months. Often struck by a specific misfortune, a mom begins to scramble to pay rent – in a budget that has no wiggle room. And the downward cycle begins, a mom watching her family’s security slipping out of her grip, from her own apartment to begging a few weeks with a sister or a friend, to squeezing too many people into a two-bedroom apartment, until there are no other options but to ask for help from strangers.
So when she comes to us, kids in tow, she has already been through so much. So by the time a family arrives here at Bethlehem, they may have been in a shelter for weeks. And with a tight rental market, it can take 3 months – sometimes longer to get accepted by a landlord. Imagine the emotional toll on the parents and the children.
Pastor Ben shared with me a particularly poignant moment during your recent hosting weeks. A Bethlehem volunteer, who I’ll call Jane, was playing with a few of the kids who were staying in our shelter program. This little boy, I’ll call Tyler, wanted to build a home with the blocks. So together the two of them build a home. He is smiling and having fun. And then in runs a little girl also in the shelter program, I’ll call Tasha. Instead of joining them, she knocks down the home. Jane is startled but Tyler just starts again – building a home and once again, here comes Tasha, down goes the home. And he starts again.
To me, this story captures the emotions that our families are experiencing – the hope and resilience to keep trying to put the pieces back together again, and the rage and despair when their world keeps tumbling down around them.
And what is asked of us? For most of us, it is easiest to embrace the hope – building up the blocks. Are we also willing to stay present, to be witnesses to the anger and despair? And to not judge but to carry God’s love.
The scripture today of the transfiguration of Jesus allows the disciples to clearly see God’s presence. But we are called to see God’s presence in less clear ways. I can see God in Jane – giving up time with her family – to ease the journey for another family. I can also see God in Tyler, that little boy, patiently, maybe even stubbornly, rebuilding a home and hope. I can also see God in Tasha, that little tornado of a girl, laying bare the reality of her life, that there is no home, no hope. Perhaps her reality – the injustice that she feels that some of us have homes and some don’t – is what God wants us to truly see.
On Christmas morning, a fire swept through the Drake Hotel, and hundreds of people who had so little poured out into the freezing streets at 5:00 in the morning with only the clothes on their back. Perhaps because it was Christmas, we saw with a new clarity – the stark difference between our plans for the day to share gifts and food with family and those of other families right here in our community. That many people responded with generosity, showing up with diapers, clothes and blankets. It was a spontaneous outpouring of support.
When a dramatic fire like the Drake Hotel happens, the media shows up and we as a community respond with generosity. But what is often invisible is the fire that is slowly burning through low-income communities that quietly causes one family at a time to become homeless. It doesn’t get covered because it doesn’t make a dramatic backdrop for the evening news. And I think that the truth is that we as the audience get overwhelmed by the need. When the need is 100 hundred families, we feel compelled to act. But when the need is 45,000 families, we can be paralyzed.
I ask you to absorb the magnitude of the need. The waitlist for federal rent subsidy which is usually closed was opened for a short time. 45,000 families requested help here in the Twin Cities. 45,000 families. These are families that most likely have a home but they are struggling each month to pay the rent. Rents are going up faster than wages in lower-income families, so families pay 50… 60… 70% of their paycheck to keep a roof over their heads.
But we don’t fund the federal rent subsidy program to help everyone who qualifies for help. So what happened? The public agencies held a lottery and of the 45,000 families, a lucky 7,500 got picked to go on the bottom of a waitlist. In a few years, they will get help with their rent. And the balance, the 37,000 families, nothing. That is the reality that Tasha and her mom know.
What is the reality that I, as a middle-class homeowner know? My housing is subsidized through the mortgage interest deduction that I take on my taxes. In the federal budget, more resources go to subsidizing housing costs for those that make more than $200,000 a year through the mortgage interest deduction than we do on rent subsidies for families that make less than $25,000 a year.
If we spent just the same total amount, we would eliminate homelessness and housing instability in our communities. I’ve talked to a principal of a St Paul elementary school where 50% of his students have been homeless at least once in the last three years. Imagine the difference in that school, in that neighborhood, if all of the kids know where they are going to sleep, have enough food to eat, and have a place to do their homework.
This was brought home to be in a very personal way when my son was in Kindergarten. ]He had a girlfriend, a cute little girl with braids in her hair that you could tell her mom fussed over. He was excited to ask her to his first big-boy birthday party. She said, I can’t come, I’m staying in a homeless shelter. My son, knowing what I do said, Don’t worry you can come stay with us and my mom will build you a home.
Of course, I can’t do that but I do believe that we can. I believe that we have the abundance in our community and the compassion to live into the vision that all people have a home. I also love that as a 5-year-old that he understood that we need emergency shelter and we need homes.
So Beacon does both. Our hosting program, Families Moving Forward, meets the needs of families in crisis tonight. And we develop homes in our community with your help. Beacon has developed 18 apartment buildings providing over 600 homes in Minneapolis, in St Paul and in Edina.
I mentioned that we have seen more families need to stay longer in a shelter. We see a tremendous need for families that have more serious barriers to housing – perhaps a mental health disability that prevents the mother from working. So we have set an ambitious goal to create three new supportive housing developments for just such families.
We are developing Vista 44 in Hopkins, Prairie Pointe in Shakopee, and a-yet-to-be-named development in North Minneapolis, altogether about 150 new homes. It takes about $15,000 in private contributions, what we call a seed, to plant a new home. This seed money allows us to leverage the balance from government funds to create a home for a family.
Bethlehem has made a generous mission gift of $60,000 to which plants the seed for four new homes at Vista 44 in Hopkins. Thank you so much! A family living at Vista 44 will have a well-managed and well-maintained apartment with deeply affordable rents – across from Central Park for the kids to play, blocks from the stores on Main Street and access to the strong and diverse Hopkins school district. Vista 44 is what we call supportive housing, so located right in the apartment building, will be family advocates working with the family to identify needs and get them met, and then – lo and behold – to identify dreams and to put together a plan to turn them into reality.
I’ve seen the transformation in little girls like Tasha. From knocking down the blocks to having a bedroom of her own, a mom with confidence, and a welcoming community. She can go to school and not have to say, like my son’s friend, I can’t come to your party – I’m in a shelter. She can say, I’m having a birthday party at my home – would you like to come?
Thank you for opening your doors so that families are safe and warm. And to open your hearts to the emotions of resilience and anger. And to opening your eyes to injustice that allows the destructive fire of homelessness to slowly burn through low-income neighborhoods.
Let us hear the call of our faith to live more fully into our vision that all people have a home.