Connections Shelter will move into First Presbyterian Church this fall, after the shelter’s directors finalized a lease agreement with the church Wednesday.
The overnight shelter rotated between partner churches for its first two seasons and then had a singular site at Covenant Family Church between October 2019 and April.
Connections’ directors hope moving to First Presbyterian’s top floor will get the shelter closer to developing a year-round, overnight model.
“Our goal is to be able to provide a year-round (overnight) shelter, and we really need this intermediary step where we can ramp up with staffing and we can ramp up our volunteer model,” said Erica Koser, Connections co-director. “So this space provides that.”
She and co-director Collette Broady Grund were in talks with First Presbyterian’s leadership about a partnership over the last year or so. First Presbyterian Pastor Lindsay Conrad said church members have long been looking into ways to use the extra space in the building.
When Conrad was preparing to begin her work at the church about a year and a half ago, she remembers being encouraged to connect with Koser and Grund. The three share a passion for serving the vulnerable through community-based ministry.
First Presbyterian had a task force look into the shelter possibility. Offering a year-to-year lease was a big decision, Conrad said, and one the church decided together.
“It’s our way to come to the table and serve,” she said.
The shelter will use the church’s top floor, which includes 14 rooms previously used for purposes ranging from Sunday school to storage to games. Koser and Grund expect as many as 35 beds for individuals and families can fit, an increase from previous seasons.
Renovations will begin in June once the lease agreement begins. The space at least needs a new bathroom and a kitchenette to serve meals.
Guests will access the shelter on the Hickory Street side of the historic church. Stairs go directly up to the top floor, along with an elevator for anyone with physical disabilities.
The City of Mankato is set to cover renovation costs using about $40,000 in federal community development block grant funding. Kristin Prososki, the city’s associate director of housing and economic development, said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allocates the funding to the city each year, with one of the purposes being to benefit low-income residents.
“We use it toward goals that are laid out to meet community needs,” she said. “The expansion of shelter bed space has been a longstanding need in the community.”
Although again in a new location, Connections will retain its rotating volunteer model. The shelter has 16 partner congregations on board to help volunteer, provide meals or assist shelter staff.
The directors said an announcement about staffing will be made in the near future. They also pointed out community volunteers, those not affiliated with churches, will continue to be welcome and needed.
Bethlehem Lutheran Church, where Grund is a pastor; Centenary United Methodist, where Koser is a pastor; and Conrad’s First Presbyterian are all among the partner congregations. One of the goals with the new space is to give congregations a sense of ownership by sponsoring and decorating rooms, Grund said.
Achieving a year-round, overnight emergency shelter will also require more churches and volunteers to get involved, she added. Over its first three years, the shelter was seasonally open between October and April.
“If we can get the funding, we hope to open this time without a closing date,” Grund said. “That’s kind of our dream.”
She encouraged “creative fundraising” to support the shelter. Many nonprofits can’t hold traditional fundraising events due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so raising money could have to look different than it has in the past.
The pandemic could also impact operations at the new shelter location. Guest limitations could be needed, as could a change in the shelter’s communal meal set-ups.
Those questions will be answered as the shelter’s fall opening approaches. With people experiencing homelessness at high risk for COVID-19, Grund said protecting guests will be a top priority.
“We are now understanding more than ever that the people experiencing homelessness are an integrated part of this community, and ignoring them is to the peril of this community,” she said.
She, Koser and Conrad all expressed excitement at the new location and partnership. Conrad handed over the keys outside the church Wednesday before the three went upstairs to sign the lease agreement in a room likely to be turned into the shelter’s administrative office by this fall.
“To see where it’s come through the support of the community and ways we’ve been able to partner, I’m just in awe of how it continued to grow,” Koser said.
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