When Todd Barnes, an active member and former president of Zion Lutheran Church, needed a new model for his work with the homeless, he looked at the success of many areas in the country. Lancaster, PA in particular had a model he thought would work in the areas he serves.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had given the Community Council, where he works as the Executive Director, a mandate to completely rework how they worked with clients and referred them for services.
The Community Council is a membership organization focused on collaborative efforts to improve human services in the Tri-County region of St. Charles,
Lincoln and Warren Counties. Lancaster County was successful, in part, due
to its heavy partnerships with faith communities. So he went along Interstate 70, meeting with different faith communities to learn how they could partner.
The Right Role for Each Player
Like many churches in the area, Zion Lutheran Church would sometimes receive word of someone in need and get a request from them directly about immediate and pressing needs, like housing, gas or food. Without a background in human services, most church workers or members didn’t know how best to help, which was discouraging for all involved. Plus, there was no good way for the congregation to follow up with the individual to see if they got long-term assistance.
Mr. Barnes worked to set up a central process for connecting with homeless people in need of services. This way, when a congregation or other entity learned of a person in need, they could refer them directly to the Community Council, who would then do a full assessment and connect them from one central place to as many providers as necessary.
Mr. Barnes says, “Before we had this process, a homeless person would have to call every provider up individually.” As a result, the process was exhausting and people would miss opportunities to receive help. It also made sharing data about effectiveness almost impossible. Now, congregations can serve homeless neighbors with a single referral.
Another important role is collecting donations. Funding is always a critical need for organizations like the Community Council. Zion Lutheran Church contributes to a fund that enables case managers to offer people emergency housing,
identification, or gas.
Zion Lutheran Church Helps Gather Startling Community Insights
A centralized intake process has had another benefit: information and data. Zion Lutheran Church in St. Charles has been instrumental in helping the Community Council take a census on the homeless population. This meant going in person to speak with homeless people in the cold month of January, visiting people living in tents.
Despite covering some of the most prosperous counties in the state, the Council knows homeless is a real problem, but it’s not as visible as it is in some larger cities, like downtown St. Louis. Unfortunately, Mr. Barnes notes that a large number of the people he works with are single mothers with children. These families require different services than a homeless single man.
Community Relationships and Life-Changing Impact
Mr. Barnes often also hears church workers say, “We’re great keeps of souls,
but we’re not good case managers of social services.” Now, with a single place to send homeless neighbors, anyone can know the person will get the help they need if they choose to act on the referral to the Community Council.
Zion Lutheran Church also has a vibrant prison ministry. Despite the best
efforts of the penal system, recently released prisoners are often at high risk of homelessness. The ministry is often able to work ahead of prisoners’ release and hopefully prevent this problem before it starts.
One added benefit of this streamlined system is reporting. The Community Council sends a monthly update to their partners. Since embarking on this
process, the organization has assisted 800 people in finding housing.
A Process to Guide Partnerships and Vision
In this case, the Community Council came directly to the congregation and asked them to contribute. It worked well with the congregation’s desire to support the homeless population. However, these partnerships don’t always materialize so organically.