Place residence

A Place for Dad – Living Lutheran

After operating a homeless men’s guesthouse for over a decade, St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Dubuque, Iowa, recently shifted its ministry to single fathers caring for their children.

The congregation almost home The ministry, which includes the shelter and a free clothing store, welcomed its first two families led by single fathers in August. One father has four children and the other has five.

For 11 years, Almost Home’s 12-bed men’s shelter has welcomed around 100 people each year. “After conducting numerous exit interviews of men leaving the shelter, we found that so many of them were single heads of households who themselves were homeless as children,” said said Gwen Kirchhof, director of Almost Home. And when men came to the congregation’s Open Closet store to buy clothes, bedding and household items, many asked if there was anywhere to stay with their children, she added.

Kirchhof said local shelters can only accommodate mothers and children. Recognizing an unmet need, the ministry’s board asked St. John’s members to change the shelter from housing for single men to housing for single fathers and their children.

It was easy for the congregation to accept the change, Kirchhof said, after hearing stories about families the ministry would impact — a father who lost his job and has multiple children and a single father whose daughter was in foster care because he was living in his car.

The congregation embraced the ministry after hearing from families it would have an impact, including a father whose daughter was in foster care because he lived in his car.

“Heartbreaking stories like these compelled Almost Home to take action,” Kirchhof said. “Men didn’t want their children to go through what they [had]and Almost Home knew it could make a difference for these children.

The guest house was closed last year for renovations and the men have been moved to other local shelters. The facility was later renovated with funds from donations and grants, including a $146,000 Big Dream Grant from ELCA Hunger in the world.

The shelter, located in an upstairs classroom of the St. John’s building, now includes two small apartments and a communal kitchen. “We wanted privacy, security, and the ability to teach life skills in a more family-friendly atmosphere,” Kirchhof said.

“This new refuge is unique for our region. We want people to know that more and more single men are having their children and there is no room for them. No child in the United States should live in a car or in any situation where they could be exploited. »

Church in action

Jay Ilten, who recently retired as St. John’s pastor, said Almost Home enables the congregation to live out its Matthew 25 mission — to care for the homeless, the hungry, and those in need. otherwise need.

“We are located in downtown Dubuque and have access to food programs, meals and social services,” he said. “Most homeless people gravitate to this part of town, so the church was well placed for this type of ministry.”

The closest shelters to Dubuque for men with children are located in Chicago, St. Louis and statewide in Sioux City, said Paul Amlin, pastor of Lord of Life Lutheran ChurchAsbury, Iowa, and board member of Almost Home.

Amlin, whose congregation supports Almost Home with financial donations and donations to Open Closet, said he joined the board three years ago after seeing the ministry change so many lives. “When people have hope, it’s easier to get involved,” he said. “Historically, churches have been places and agents of social work. We’ve ceded a lot of that to the government, which is wonderful, but we’re at the point where if we want to see change with the social issues, the churches have to take an active role.

“We want people to know that more and more single men are having their children. and there is no place for them.

Kirchhof strives to connect men to employment services and community resources. “We have good relationships with local businesses,” she said. “They will call and ask if we have men available when they need help.”

Almost Home also partners with local social service organizations, including school and family support groups. Interns and volunteers occasionally come from Wartburg Theological Seminaryalso located in Dubuque.

The ministry is growing, as Kirchhof hires staff locally and plans to open three more family apartments.

In June, Almost Home held a fundraiser that raised nearly $14,000. The event included a benefit concert by 11 the Band, a musical group in which Amlin is the drummer. The band is made up of pastors and lay musicians who have been playing together since their seminary days.

Kirchhof said the fundraiser also raised awareness for Almost Home and attracted new volunteers, including a retired social worker who will help with case management and people who want to be mentors.

“It’s the Holy Spirit at work,” she says.

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