Lending a helping hand: Minot support for homeless and needy well-established

“If anyone has any sleeping bags to donate, Faith United Pantry needs them to give to people who are sleeping in their cars.”

That’s the text found in a small advertisement in a church bulletin last month that quietly proclaimed that not all was well in a city that by several accounts was once a place people didn’t lock their doors and felt separate from the plights found elsewhere in the country.

“I could be mowing my yard and have my back door wide open,” said Louis “Mac” McLeod, the executive director of the Minot Area Homeless Coalition on how safe Minot once felt. “Now, you better not even try that because you’re just inviting someone to come in. … It’s a whole different mentality.”

The changes in Minot are not just for longtime residents who are seeing changes in the community and rising rents and cost of living increases in general, but also for newcomers who sought a job here after failing to find it elsewhere in the country who didn’t know about the expense of living here.

“I have had some calling me and saying that, yes, they are living in their cars. I get some calls because they’re about to be evicted from their apartments,” said Linda Randolph, resident director for the YWCA shelter which houses only women and children. “There are a lot of reasons why they’re homeless.”

“There’s no way that the county or the city can assist these people … to get back on their feet,” said McLeod. “We just don’t have the capabilities.”

While county and city government resources for helping the influx of homeless in the region may be stretched thin, that old community togetherness that people have described seems to still be around and capable of providing for the extended needs.

“Something we started last winter was a church sheltering program,” said Michael Carbone, the executive director of the North Dakota Association for Homeless People. “Some churches came up and said they would like to help shelter some of the homeless … and there are individuals who shelter people, and that’s not always safe but it’s certainly a blessing to those who get sheltered that way.”

One Minot man, who was unsure if he wanted his name mentioned in the newspaper, was sheltered in just such a way. He had fallen on hard times as the rents increased in Minot and had resorted to “hanging out” in the entry-way of a friend’s residence for a while before he was able to get back on his feet.

For some, though, there are no friends or family to fall back on when times get rough, and that’s where churches and other community support systems and institutions come in.

There is a free meal available every day of the week at various churches in town to those who want or need it, and also an evening meal provided on Wednesdays.

Thursday’s soup kitchen lunch held at Minot’s All Saints Episcopal Church could more aptly be described as a “community lunch,” which is their preferred term. Indeed, those eating a nice, full meal of soup, sandwiches, salad and special Valentine’s Day cupcakes and cookies as well as the support volunteers who prepare the meals and administer the lunch every week are very much members of a community.

One man, who is a regular at the community lunch, even decided to take it upon himself to shovel the slowly gathering snow on the sidewalks outside the church before coming down to enjoy his meal which is, as always, free of charge.

On this particular day parents of home-schooled children volunteered to serve lunch while their happy and respectful children walked around like waiters and waitresses to make sure everyone’s thirst and hunger was taken care of. One little girl even made sure that this reporter didn’t forget the Valentine she hand-made with a Bible verse included.

The types of people seeking help run the gamut from war veterans who have had trouble readjusting to regular life to even one man with a doctorate in law but suffered some setbacks.

“We see everything,” said McLeod. “When a circumstance arises it doesn’t say I’m only going to pick on the person under the poverty line, it hits everywhere.”

Men are particularly hard hit.

“I told somebody a couple years ago that I, myself, think that Minot does need a men’s shelter,” said Randolph. “We have five rooms downstairs. If they’re all women without children down there then we try to put two to a room,” she said, “but if it’s a woman who has two or three children I prefer to give them a room to themselves.”

As for the men who come up for work and bring their families along, they’re often stuck living in their cars or wherever they can find a place to stay.

“They’ve heard the job opportunities are just wonderful so they bring their whole families up here but they’ve told me they didn’t know it was so expensive here,” she said.

She says that in her time working there she has seen the needs for shelter and help with basic needs increase.

None of these programs stand on their own. The YWCA often receives extra food that is left over from community lunches.

“We really appreciate what the community is doing for us. The community is helping us and in turn we’re helping the community by helping these women and children,” Randolph said.

“We house volunteers,” said Rev. Mary Johnson of the All Saints Episcopal Church on other ways the church helps out the community. “We had three different AmeriCorp and one FEMA corps team living here … they stayed here, cooked their own meals in our kitchen … and made this their home.”

“I’m impressed,” Johnson said of the support system in place in Minot. “I think that the social services are utterly overwhelmed by the new folks coming in. One of the hard things is that there are people who are long-term unemployed in other parts of the country … Especially for folks in their 20’s and 30’s. They hear that the streets here are paved in gold … the rumors get pretty expansive about here.”

Volunteers at The Lord’s Cupboard Food Pantry, which is one of several pantries where those in need can pick up groceries, agree that those rumors are no good.

The pantry, where people can get things as diverse as daily bread to baby formula to even sparkling grape juice depending on what has been donated to them, sees people every day whose expectations for Minot were so much different than reality.

Still, though, people are fully embraced and taken care of, and so is the pantry. The building housing the pantry was donated to the cause by Goodwill and only utilities have to be paid for.

The YWCA, the food pantries, and the churches all rely on donations from individuals and area businesses to provide their services. They all work together to create a network that does its best to provide for the needs on a case-by-case basis and as needed.

“The short story is we try to help those in need with various every day needs,” McLeod said of the homeless coalition. “The necessities of life. That’s a wide range. We never know what an individual’s needs are until it comes to it.”

“Here’s my wish for this community: (Lifelong Minot residents) have a wonderful work ethic, they have a way of sizing people up and trusting them,” Johnson said, “but then we get this whole, big influx of people coming here who don’t have roots here and don’t get that. Then our local people get really suspicious and negative and frustrated with the new people. … My hope is that we can set an example and incorporate these people with the values Minot became strong on.”