Charity that has saved thousands now needs saving itself


Watching her four-year-old daughter Toni play in the yard outside their Minneapolis apartment always brings a smile to 26-year-old Octavia Brown’s face. Sometimes it also brings tears.

“I get overwhelmed with emotion when I stop and think about the turn our lives took just six months ago,” says Brown. Early last December, a City worker came knocking at her door with news that she and her daughter would have to move out of the apartment they had called home for more than a year.

“He told me the landlord was so delinquent on the water bill he had no choice but to evict me,” says Brown. At first she was in denial, thinking there was no way this could be happening to her. After all, she had always paid her rent on time. “I even did a nice job keeping up with the yard,” she says.

But once the City worker convinced her she couldn’t change the outcome, Brown packed up her things and moved out. She had become homeless again.

According to a study done by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in 2007, approximately 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of them children, were likely to experience homelessness in a given year. Based on the current economic climate, that number is probably even higher.

After getting evicted, Brown and her daughter were able to move in with friends temporarily. The Chicago transplant eventually decided to return to the shelter that had helped her out five years earlier when she was new in town, pregnant, and needing a place to stay.

For the past 17 years, Families Moving Forward (FMF), a nonprofit emergency shelter on Emerson Avenue in Minneapolis, has been giving families with children the helping hand they need to get by during tough times. The nonprofit partners with more than 40 interfaith congregations throughout the Twin Cities to provide food, shelter and support.

Unfortunately, Octavia Brown and her daughter may be among the last they are able to help. “Families Moving Forward is facing a double whammy,” says Leslie Frost, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“Our services have never been more necessary, but finding the funds to operate has never been more difficult. We have managed to raise enough to survive to the end of 2009, but there is still a real possibility of a shutdown of the agency in 2010 unless we can raise a sufficient reserve,” Frost says.

“We need to raise an extra $250,000 by December 31 to keep our doors open well into the future.”

Frost is among the staffers who have pretty much been working around the clock for months to try and find a solution to the predicament they are in. Due to the current economy, charitable giving is down, but need is way up.

Since July 2008, FMF has been receiving about 300 calls per month from homeless families seeking shelter. “That’s an increase of 600 percent in just two years,” says Frost, “and those 300 calls represent more than 1,000 people, of which nearly 400 are under the age of six.”

Here’s just a sampling of messages left recently on the nonprofit’s voicemail:

“Hi, my name is Victoria and I’m looking for emergency shelter for me and my two kids.”

“Hi, my name is Charlie. I have two children, and we’re facing eviction because I lost my job. I got laid off. It was a good job.”

“Hi. My family is in need of emergency shelter. Can you please help?”

Frost says she wishes these calls could have been answered by a live person, but “We just don’t have the staff available to do that right now. We’re down to the bare bones.”

Unfortunately, FMF was not able to help any of those three families. “One of our counselors called them all back, though, and offered other appropriate resources,” says Frost. “I wish we could have helped, but at the time they called our shelter was full.”

FMF is only able to host eight families at a time.

Fortunately for Brown, her timing was good and she got the help she needed. Once back at the shelter, she had access to all the resources she needed to start over again. She and her daughter had a comfortable place to sleep every night courtesy of several local congregations. While Toni was in daycare, Octavia was able to use FMF’s computers to complete her school work.

Brown graduated from Everest College’s Medical Administrative Assistant program in February 2009. A month later, she and her daughter moved into another apartment that FMF helped her find. She is currently interviewing for jobs in her chosen field.

“I can’t thank my counselors enough,” Brown says. “They were so helpful with everything.”

“Without Families Moving Forward, good hard-working people like Octavia Brown would have no place to turn for help in a housing crisis. I fear what would happen to them if we go away,” says Frost.

To find out what you can do to help, or to make a donation, log on to the Families Moving Forward website: familiesmovingfor

Rachel M. Anderson is a freelance writer who lives in Minnetonka. She welcomes reader responses to

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