I was very pleased to see Joe Nathan’s guest column “Homeless students are everywhere in our state” in the Dec. 19th issue. Obviously, the topic is not something that is pleasing, but it is beautiful to see how he and his friends surrounded that homeless family they met at Culver’s with love and care. His column will hopefully raise awareness of the challenges facing so many families in our communities so that all of us can consider how to respond in our own way.
I first came across the problem of homeless children nearly 20 years ago. I was living in downtown Minneapolis and was quite familiar with the sight of single adults who were homeless on the streets. It hadn’t dawned on me that children were also homeless. Nor had it occurred to me that having children stay in adult shelters presents a particular set of challenges both for their safety and ensuring the smooth continuation of their studies
In 2000, I met an amazing woman who started taking care of the homeless on our streets way back in 1985. By 1995, she had built a transitional housing facility specifically aimed at taking care of homeless families with young children. With three subsequent additions, it has grown to today host more than 600 people – with over 400 of them being children!
Mary Jo Copeland created and runs Sharing and Caring Hands and Mary’s Place Transitional Housing without a penny of local, state or federal money. It is the outpouring of generosity from our local residents and business community that enables her to serve those struggling with poverty in our area. In addition to housing for families, she provides over 1,000 hot meals a day, a food shelf, coats and other clothing, blankets, a shower facility and free dental and medical clinics.
Children are also provided with school supplies and volunteer tutors help them regain lost ground in their academics. (It is estimated that homelessness for children places them on average two years behind grade level in school.) Schools are identifying more and more children struggling due to poor eyesight, and so Mary Jo spends over $50,000 on eyeglasses each year for underprivileged students in our public schools so they can continue learning. Mary Jo also makes sure that the kids get Christmas presents and field trips – the little delights that every child should be able to experience. The more sorrows in their young lives from poverty, the more joys she tries to bring them to give them hope.
As I shiver in our winter weather, I try to remember to be grateful for my warm clothes and safe place to live. At this time of year when Christians remember a family 2,000 years ago that was engaged in a frustrating search for shelter, I smile as I think of the star towering over Mary’s Place. As Mary Jo says, this place is a Bethlehem where families can find shelter all year long to rest their bodies and their spirits. Out of gratitude for our own blessings, my prayer is that we may each find ways to reach out to those in need as well as support the heroes on the front lines who bring comfort to our suffering brothers and sisters all year long.
The Rev. Joseph Johnson is pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Louis Park.