Lakisha Wells doesn’t expect to be homeless much longer.
Wells, a single mother, moved to Minnesota in August with her two sons, 3-year-old, Zay’on and an infant, DeDrick.
“I moved here because Zay’on has autism,” she said.
Wells lived in Illinois, but said state budget cuts meant she didn’t have access to some of the programs Zay’on needed because of his autism. For his sake, she came to Minnesota to live with a friend.
It didn’t work out.
The friend put her out of the house, Wells said, and she found herself with no family nearby and nowhere to go.
She turned to the county for help and was referred to the “Families Moving Forward” program. She entered the program Dec. 17. Since then, she and her sons have slept in metro-area churches, moving to a different host congregation each week.
Run by PORTICO Interfaith Housing Collaborative, Families Moving Forward works with 44 congregations to provide shelter for up to eight families with children each week. Although PORTICO has only managed the program the past few years, Families Moving Forward has existed approximately 20 years, according to Kris Berggren of PORTICO.
Participating congregations welcome up to four families for a week at a time. They provide a place to sleep, as well as a meal each evening and breakfast in the morning.
“This really taps the compassion and hospitality of congregation members,” Berggren said.
The model also means the program doesn’t require licensing as a permanent shelter.
Wells and two other families stayed at Family of God Lutheran Church on Zane Avenue in Brooklyn Park last week. It was the church’s first time serving as a host congregation.
“This seemed like such a great thing to be able to bring people inside our building and love them for a whole week,” Pastor Sarah Bunge said.
Each night volunteers – mostly from within the church – came to prepare a meal, play with children and converse with families. The congregation responded enthusiastically to the call for volunteers.
“We had to turn some volunteers away, or put them on a waiting list,” said volunteer David Loos, who took a week of vacation to lead the church’s effort.
Wells and the other families arrived at Family of God Lutheran the afternoon of Super Bowl Sunday and were welcomed with a Super Bowl party that evening.
Early the next morning, the families awoke to have breakfast and board a bus.
Each weekday the bus, provided by Families Moving Forward, transports Wells to the program center in north Minneapolis, which has storage space, laundry facilities and computer access. From there, a school bus picks up Zay’on, and day care is provided for DeDrick. That leaves Wells free to prepare for a new future.
During the day, she makes a lot of phone calls. She looks for apartments, makes medical appointments and schedules therapy sessions for Zay’on. She hopes to get him into Fraser, a program to treat and support special-needs children.
But Wells isn’t on her own. Family, housing and children’s advocates at the program center assist and guide her, and she must report regularly on what she’s accomplished. That’s because the program seeks to get families into stable housing situations within 90 days.
The average length of a stay last year was 54 days. Fifty-seven percent of the 52 families sheltered left Families Moving Forward into stable housing.
Wells anticipates leaving the program in early March. She’s still working on arrangements for housing, day care and special help for Zay’on. But Wells has hope. She plans to find an apartment and a job, as well as further her education.
“I want to work and go to school,” she said.
Someday she’d like to be a nurse, a personal care assistant or an occupational therapist.
But for one more month, she’ll continue to go “home” to a different church each week. This week it’s Discover Church, another Brooklyn Park congregation.
“It’s emotional,” Wells said. “I get attached to people. The week goes by kind of fast.”
But she also appreciates the relationships she’s been able to build and has exchanged phone numbers with some volunteers.
“They feel like family,” she said.
She plans to stay in touch.
For more information on Families Moving Forward, go to porticocollaborative.org.
Contact Jonathan Young at firstname.lastname@example.org