December 14, 2008

Sharing and Caring Hands, a Real Test of Faith

Charities around Minneapolis have begun to feel the effects of the weakening economy as the amount of people seeking help has swelled while donations are falling short.

“It is really God’s work,? Mary Jo Copeland, the director and founder of Sharing and Caring Hands, a Minneapolis homeless shelter, said. “He will work it all out.?

Sharing and Caring Hands will need it as they approach the year’s end. The nonprofit has seen a significant drop in the donations of food, clothes and toys this Christmas season. The most drastic decline has been in financial donations, Rob Wills, the center’s night manager, said.

“Donations are down more than $500,000 from what we have been averaging over the last several years,? Wills said.

As the lines of people in need grow daily, there is an escalating concern among some employees that donations will not be able to keep up with the pace.

“The line of people seeking financial help to pay their bills or receive vouchers has doubled in the last couple months,? Chris Moore, one of Sharing and Caring Hands’ five full-time employees said.

Sharing and Caring Hands spends $300,000 every month, serving about 20,000 people.

The organization relies entirely on donations and private grants. Copeland says she does not accept money from United Way or the government because paperwork dehumanizes the poor.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, nearly 200 people crowd around the piles of donated clothing, toys and hygiene products laid out on tables in the basement of the shelter. A line of homeless people waiting to use a shower extends around the room.

Upstairs a line stretches all the way around the large cafeteria, as people wait to talk to Copeland or her husband, Dick. After listening to each person’s needs, they do whatever they can to provide aid, Dick Copeland said.

The organization provides financial help to pay for bills, rent and bus tickets. They also provide free housing for families with children, hot meals, clothes, a food shelf, health care and legal aid, Sister Xavier M’Ezeokoli, a member of the I-H-M Sisters, said.

Foreclosure is a big part of the story, Moore said. Many of the people coming into the shelter ended up on the streets through no fault of their own. They faithfully paid rent to their landlords who ended up not keeping up with mortgages and had to foreclose, forcing them out on the street.

In recent months, many more families have been seeking housing at the Mary’s Place shelter, located across the street from the food shelf. The shelter houses 92 families at any given time. No waiting lists are kept as families are taken in daily on a need-only basis.

Although the shelter has never had an empty room since its opening in 1995, Moore said the organization has had to turn away many more families in the last six months. Most people are sent to Hennepin County Emergency Shelter when there is no room at Mary’s Place.

“Usually when people think ‘homeless,’ they think of a grizzly guy on the street. That is not the case, especially now. The economic crisis has definitely changed the demographics of the homeless,? Lance Martin, another Sharing and Caring Hands employee, said.

Jason Mayberry is an example of the demographic change.

As a father of three children, Mayberry has always held a steady job to support his family. He could never imagine himself relying on Sharing and Caring Hands for a warm meal, Mayberry said.

That is, until now.

Last summer Mayberry was laid off from his factory job in Edina.

“I’ve done everything in my power to find another job,? Mayberry said over a plate of noodles, a hardboiled egg and chips served by volunteers.

“I ran out of money to pay rent. Now I can't support my kids and don’t even have a place to live.?

Stories like Mayberry’s have become very common at the center in recent months, as more people come in for help, Martin said. Despite Copeland’s calm faith, the organization has reason to worry about the combination of more people in need and less in donations.

Sharing and Caring Hands is not the only nonprofit facing uncertain times.

“The Salvation Army donations are down 10 to 30 percent this year,? Annette Bauer, spokeswoman for the Minnesota and North Dakota Salvation Army division, said.

The American Red Cross Twin Cities Area Chapter laid off 15 people this month because of diminishing individual donations. The chapter’s budget dropped from $10 million to $7 million this year, the American Red Cross’s media inquiries contact, Courtney Johnson, said.

Sharing and Caring Hands receives almost 50 percent of its annual donations in the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This makes it hard to project budget short falls, but there are many indicators that suggest that times are harder this year, Martin said.

“Every year we serve a Christmas dinner with all the works,? Moore said. “By this time we usually have hundreds of donated turkeys, but right now we have only received about 30.?

Donated Christmas presents for children also seem to be fewer than usual, Moore said.

“We’re hoping that people will understand the huge need there is right now,? Dick Copeland said, optimistic that donations will pour in to help those who desperately need it despite the hard times this Christmas season.