Families Moving Forward in Minneapolis—or closing doors?


Families Moving Forward, a Minneapolis-based family homeless shelter, faces possible closure by mid-July due to a funding crisis.

This month, the faith-based non-profit issued an appeal for donations, stating that the organization will have to close by July 15 if it cannot raise $60,000.

“Unless we do some dramatic things, we’re not going to be able to survive,” executive director Leslie Frost said in an interview in mid-May.

The faith-based non-profit has served over 1,800 families since its inception in 1992. The agency currently serves eight families at a time in its emergency shelter program and provides 32 units of permanent affordable housing. Each month, over 300 individuals call requesting help. Frost said that about 88 percent of their families have found safe, affordable housing this year, through the help of staff and volunteers.

Families Moving Forward is a faith based organization in Minneapolis, Minnesota that provides temporary emergency shelter, permanent affordable housing and supportive services to low income families with children, in collaboration with over 40 local congregations and thousands of volunteers. This video was posted on YouTube at the beginning of May 2009.

The organization operates on a unique model. Local congregations open their doors on a weekly rotating basis, providing shelter and a wide variety of resources–including everything from diapers and formula to stuffed animals and clothing for job interviews. More than 4,200 volunteers participate each year.

About a year ago, a sharp decrease in grants and donations forced the organization to start spending down its reserves, Frost said. By fall, the reserves were gone. The agency will eliminate two staff positions next month and plans to sell a six-unit affordable housing facility to generate funds. This month, a fundraising appeal went out to over 2,500 supporters.

You can donate online to Families Moving Forward at: http://familiesmovingforward.org

The number of homeless families in the state has risen sharply in the past several years. Over 1,300 Minnesotan families were homeless during the last comprehensive shelter count conducted by the Wilder Foundation in 2006–up 300 percent from 1991. The Minneapolis Public School District identified 5,500 homeless youth last year. In March, the number of homeless youth was up 30 percent over the same month last year.

Social service providers say the numbers continue to rise. A March count of the number of families in county-run shelters showed an 18 percent increase since 2008. In early May, the Drake Hotel, a dilapidated building in downtown Minneapolis that gets used when all other family shelters are full, re-opened its doors.

Local social service providers and advocates expressed alarm at the possible closure. “It would be devastating, to the suburban counties especially,” said Mike Manhard, executive director of the Metro-Wide Engagement on Shelter and Housing.

Anoka and Carver counties do not have any family shelters. Scott County operates a single shelter unit, serving one family at a time. To qualify for county-funded shelter, a family needs to prove residence in a specific county. The policy leaves many homeless families with limited options, advocates say.

Since Families Moving Forward is not a county-funded shelter, the non-profit can provide housing for families coming from any county. The agency also accepts “non- traditional families,” including same-sex couples and multi-generational families, into its programs.

Valencia Ray experienced the anguish of being separated from her family while homeless. When the rental property where Ray, her daughter, and two grandchildren lived went into foreclosure last year, the family became homeless. Ray attempted to access shelter through Hennepin County, but learned that her family would have to be separated. Ray’s daughter and grandchildren went to a battered women’s shelter. Ray went to Harbor Light, a shelter for single adults. “It was a very scary place,” she said. After one night, she started sleeping in her van.

Families Moving Forward accepted Ray and her family into their shelter. The family was reunited and moved into permanent housing a few days before Christmas. “It was the best Christmas present ever,” she said. We had absolutely nothing in here, but we had a home and that’s all that mattered.”

Meanwhile, social service providers worry that other non-profits will soon face similar problems due to the economic downturn. Already, Access Works, a local non-profit providing needle exchange and HIV prevention services, has announced that it will close at the end of June due to lack of funding.

“I’m just worried that it’s the tip of the iceberg,” Julie Manworren, executive director of Simpson Housing Services, said.

Verna Steward, a former resident at Families Moving Forward, is determined to prevent the agency’s closure. Last week, she and her daughter made their own flyers asking for donations. Every day, Steward makes 100 copies and walks around north Minneapolis, stopping at homes and businesses to request contributions.

“If I ever was to see that building empty, it would break my heart because I know that’s where I got my life back,” she said.

Steward moved to Minneapolis last summer with her daughter and three granddaughters to escape her abusive husband. The family was unable to locate housing and ended up staying at a hotel, where they were allowed eleven phone calls for five dollars. One of those calls was to Families Moving Forward. Within a week, the agency accepted Steward and her family into the program.

“Families Moving Forward saved my life,” Steward said. “My money was running out. If I went back to my husband, I could’ve gotten killed.”

The agency helped Steward locate affordable housing in north Minneapolis. “It sends chills through me because this time last year, my babies cried a lot,” she said. “They were depressed. Now, just to see smiles on their faces and for them to just be able to come home and show us their homework…” Steward began to fight back tears. “Now I can sit on the porch and get a breeze and see them run and laugh. And that’s the best thing in the world for me.”

Madeleine Baran is a freelance journalist specializing in labor and poverty issues. Her articles have appeared in The New York Daily News, Dollars & Sense, Clamor, The New Standard, and other publications.