Connections Shelter opens for fifth season

Jason Manthe (right) goes through his pockets upon intake Monday at Connections Shelter, which opened for another season at First Presbyterian Church. Church Pastor Lindsay Jacaruso (left) and Laura Peterson handled intake Monday, checking through items before the guests went upstairs to their rooms.

Connections Shelter opened for its fifth season Monday, and for the first time in its existence it didn’t need to relocate to do so.

The shelter for people experiencing homelessness in Mankato rotated between local churches for its first two seasons. It then went to Covenant Family Church for year three before finding a home at First Presbyterian Church last year.

Retaining the same location for this season has the shelter team feeling more ready than ever to serve guests, said Connections’ two co-directors ahead of the opening.

“I think just that consistency will be really positive this year,” said co-director Erica Koser.

Her fellow co-director, Collette Broady Grund, stepped into a more full-time role at the shelter this season. Having the same location, plus two directors at the helm full-time, should help with case management, Grund said.

The hope is it helps more people experiencing homelessness transition from the shelter into more permanent housing. Grund and Koser got a start on case management through summer outreach, meeting with both former guests and new faces during months when the shelter was closed.

Although the goal is to eventually have a year-round homeless shelter in Mankato, this season’s plan is for Connections to close once more in the spring with a May 31 end date. This season’s opening was the earliest since Connections started, setting it up for its longest season yet.

“If we can open next year without an end date, that would be ideal,” Grund said. “But it will really just depend on where funding is.”

Raising money to sustain operations, as well as maintaining enthusiasm among its volunteer base and the wider community, are among the challenges for Connections going forward. A “walk in their shoes” scavenger hunt downtown from 10 a.m.-noon on Oct. 23 will be the next big chance for the nonprofit to fundraise.

Connections also updates an Amazon wishlist on its website for people interested in buying clothing and other necessary items for guests.

As the nonprofit grows, the co-directors want to keep as much of its “DNA” as possible. Volunteers, as ever, are important strands in the DNA.

Church groups would rotate volunteering on a weekly basis in previous years, and many of the church volunteers continue to lend their time. More church support comes in the form of Grace Lutheran providing outdoor and indoor space at 110 N. 4th St. for Connections’ Sunday church services, which include free meals at 4:30 p.m. followed by worship at 5 p.m.

People from elsewhere in the community are also accounting for a bigger share of the volunteer base than they did in the past. Volunteer help ranges from preparing and serving meals to intaking guests, which they do alongside six overnight staff and two shelter managers.

It’s always difficult to anticipate how many guests will need the shelter before it opens. This season’s capacity, though, rose from 30 to 35 due to slightly relaxed COVID-19 protocols from the state — the shelter has nine rooms.

Moratoriums on evictions during much of the pandemic likely kept many more individuals and families from experiencing homelessness over the last year. At the shelter, it meant seeing fewer families in need of help last season.

The need for overnight shelter space during the pandemic was about the same for individuals, however, especially males. As of Monday afternoon, the co-directors hadn’t heard from a family in need yet, but had individuals come in for pre-intake meetings.

Jason Manthe was later one of the first two people to check-in at the shelter Monday evening. As he settled into his room, the Mankato man said he was glad to have a place indoors to stay after spending the previous night outdoors.

“As long as you get a roof over your head, even though it’s not yours, it’s better than sleeping outside,” he said.

Manthe noted Connections has been helpful for him, as has The Salvation Army when he needs to wash his clothes.

Checking in just before Manthe was Willard Strauss, who hadn’t previously stayed at Connections. He described the many other shelters he’s been to over the years as places you “didn’t want to stay in.”

His first impression of Connections was more encouraging. It seemed clean and quiet, he said, the kind of place where he could rest up and heal his broken leg.

“I don’t know what it’s like to lay in a bed,” he said. “It’s been so long.”

Hearing perspectives like that, then having a role in trying to help guests overcome barriers to housing, keeps the team at Connections doing what they’re doing, Koser said.

“Hopefully, here, they get a little bit of respite,” she said.

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola

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