Religious Leaders Team Up to Help Homeless in Minneapolis

Long before Sunday's big game, people gathered for interfaith events and to brainstorm ways to help the disenfranchised

As Super Bowl and football fans head to Minneapolis, dozens of homeless people who usually spend the night at a church across the street from the stadium will sleep under a different roof for a few days.

Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregants are preparing meals for shelter residents.

And a multicultural array of Minnesotans are raising money for emergency rent assistance to help prevent others from joining their ranks.

Long before the kickoff on Sunday, February 4, religious leaders brainstormed ways to ease the impact of America’s most-watched sports event on some of the area’s most vulnerable people.

The Rev. Dan Collison, who pastors First Covenant Church across the street from U.S. Bank Stadium, said local organizers contacted him four years ago about partnering on plans if their Super Bowl bid succeeded. In January, his church’s facilities have been used to train thousands of Super Bowl staff, and volunteers and tents have filled its parking lot.

Staying put would have been a logistical nightmare for the 50 to 60 homeless women and men who typically sleep in the building’s homeless shelter. Instead, they are staying at a Catholic church several blocks away.

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“Ultimately anything within 500 feet of this stadium is under incredible security scrutiny, and so this was the best solution,” said Collison, whose Evangelical Covenant Church congregation leases shelter space to a local nonprofit that serves the homeless, St. Stephen’s Human Services.

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For the training activities, a St. Stephen’s executive provided a PowerPoint presentation about how the government, faith, and private sectors encourage empathy and “small acts of kindness” as they assist homeless people.

“We want to ensure that everyone is treated with dignity, respect, and without bias,” said Collison, whose church includes people ranging from the formerly homeless to health care executives.

A Hennepin County official estimated some 2,000 people are homeless on an average night in Minneapolis and the surrounding county, with most in shelters.

Gail Dorfman, executive director of  St. Stephen’s, anticipates she’ll be sending the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee a bill for $10,000 to $15,000 to move residents of the shelter to the alternative location and back again.

Dorfman, a former county commissioner, chaired a committee of public and nonprofit agencies that work with homeless people to ensure their needs would be met.

Those relationships have assured her the Super Bowl won’t harm the people her group serves, she said of plans she hopes remain in place through Super Bowl weekend. “Nobody’s getting arrested. Nobody’s being shooed away from the public celebrations going on.”

“We want to ensure that everyone is treated with dignity, respect, and without bias,” said Collison, whose church includes people ranging from the formerly homeless to health care executives.

She said the public-private partners are hoping to apply lessons learned from past big events in the city, such as the Republican National Convention and baseball’s All-Star Game, when encampments were disrupted and people were arrested for loitering.

Instead, faith groups have worked together to inform homeless people about when the transit and bus lines will be open and where they can drop in to stay warm during the daytime hours when shelters aren’t open.

In addition, hundreds of people gathered a week before the Super Bowl for an interfaith event at Westminster Presbyterian Church that raised money for emergency rent assistance. A choir of homeless and formerly homeless people sang, and clergy and former Minnesota Vikings football players Greg Coleman and Mark Mullaney spoke along with the mayor.

Joe Kreisman, director of the city’s Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness, said more than $160,000 was raised through the fundraiser, which also included a playful video of faith leaders on the football field. Since then, he’s spent the week traveling from congregation to congregation to make sure other plans are set and there’s little duplication of effort.

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Westminster Presbyterian is providing free temporary storage to reduce the “inhumanity” of security officials’ going through homeless peoples’ personal possessions at a time when carrying a bag at a large event can prompt security checks, Kreisman said.

Another house of worship is providing places to stay warm — the forecast high for Sunday is seven degrees — or charge their cellphones “and just be away from the craziness that is the Super Bowl in downtown Minneapolis right now.”

Jews and Muslims from congregations outside the downtown area will supply food or help shuttle homeless people back to shelters after Super Bowl watch parties.

Some of this work comes with a price and some sacrifice.

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First Covenant has accepted an invitation to worship at the Episcopal cathedral about two miles away since it can’t meet within the security perimeter during the day of the game. Local organizers are expected to pay the church for the use of the space, but Collison wouldn’t say how much money the church will get.

Collison, however, declined an initial offer from the host committee for pricey tickets to the Super Bowl.

“They offered to let the church have some tickets but it would have required the church to take the amount of the tickets off of the lease and they were $4,000 each,” he said. “That was a nonstarter.”

But, a few days before the game, the committee offered him two complimentary Super Bowl tickets. Those he was willing to accept.

This article originally appeared in Religion News Service.

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