New emergency shelter opens in Minneapolis as storm blows in


Volunteer Amy Lyon couldn’t help but get teary-eyed as she looked around her at the homeless people filing into her small church in seek of shelter last Friday night in downtown Minneapolis.

Finally, she was seeing the embodiment of her dream to help those with no place to lay their head. 

Outside, a severe winter storm blew into town like a trio of Furies. Yet, thanks to the Minneapolis City Council’s stamp of approval mere hours earlier, First Covenant Church folks and Salvation Army staff welcomed 18 men and women out of the cold and into a warm place to spend the night.

“We were approved. Absolutely no problem,” said a happy Steve Horsfield this week. Horsfield is chief operations officer of the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center, which staff will operate this temporary shelter from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily through the bitter winter months. They expect to reach capacity occupancy of 30 homeless men and 20 women in days.

Opening of this winter inn now brings to six the number of emergency shelters downtown and the number of beds to about 850. Hennepin County commissioners recently authorized $117,000 to cover operating costs for the new facility.

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You read in MinnPost last month about the overflow problems of the downtown emergency shelters, about people sleeping on chairs and in hallways and in a Salvation Army chapel for want of space to lay out sleeping mats for the night. Numbers of homeless in the county are at a 10 year high, with some advocates estimating 300 or more Hennepin County residents sleep outdoors each night.

It’s the church folks, including Lyon and childhood friend Jen Ptacek, and Covenant’s lead pastor, the Rev. Dan Collison, who answered a call to ease the plight of these wanderers.

Collison says the church was approached more than a month ago by a coalition of agencies who work with the homeless, including St. Stephen’s Human Services, Heading Home Hennepin and the Salvation Army, and asked whether the church site could be used for shelter. The church was a choice location because it sits in the heart of downtown between the Metrodome and the Hennepin County Medical Center. The city and its services often attract the needy.

‘Let’s do it’
“We just were kind of delighted to jump in. The staff was eager, the leadership said, ‘Let’s do it,”’ said Collison. And the historic church, grown recently to about 225 people, is anxious to reach out, to become a racially and economically diverse, multi-dimensional, urban congregation, Collison said. 

“It’s not just about offering food and Band-Aids, but ending homelessness,” the pastor said, adding the church is “very connected” with social service resources in the city.

For Lyon, 34, who works in a school district office and lives in Prior Lake, and Ptacek, a teacher who lives in Minneapolis, the effort is the fulfillment of a long-time goal. “Probably for the last year or two, we’ve been wondering how we could help the homeless,” Lyon explained.

The pair started brainstorming with Collison last spring, and did research on the issue of homelessness and working toward solution, shadowing a street outreach worker as she made her rounds visiting the homeless. “We’ve learned through the process you don’t hand out money to people,” Lyon said.

Why the special interest in the homeless? “It’s just one of those things. It’s always nagged at me…. just the fact that everybody deserves access to basic needs,” Lyon said.

The pair are lead volunteer coordinators for the First Covenant project, responsible for already helping recruit about 40 church people for shelter training last Sunday, even as they scurry to recruit more helping hands.

Church volunteers are ready to chat, to assist with check-in and make light snacks or breakfast, depending on food donations. Sometimes the menu will be peanut butter sandwiches, as it was the other night, Lyon said.

Other times, like for this weekend, she recruited a group that has offered to bring in a meat-and-potatoes dinner. In addition, the women have the promise of help from neighboring churches. They’ll seek food donations from area health-care facilities and grocery stores.

Shelter “guests,” as Collison and others call them, enter the church from a 7th Street door to get to the 5,000-square-foot fellowship hall in the lower level to access sleeping areas, divided by gender.

At last report advocates for the homeless were searching out sleeping space for 50 more people.