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Servants of Shelter: Season begins for churches housing homeless

Last winter, a handful of volunteers from four local churches came together to house the homeless in Bemidji. As the need for more shelter space increased, more area churches responded by opening their doors.

This year, Servants of Shelter is back and volunteers are needed once again to help those in need.

From November through March, participating churches provide overnight accommodations, hot suppers, breakfasts and sack lunches to men, women and children in need. The program also helps clients with job hunting and finding housing.

Last year's SOS director, Kathie Pederson, said she was inspired to organize SOS when she learned of a successful similar shelter program in her mother's hometown of Janesville, Wis. After its first season in Bemidji last year, SOS serviced 142 nights of shelter and 2,826 meals.

"Last year was an intimidating undertaking," said Michele Sheets, a member of Mount Zion Church and volunteer coordinator with SOS. "It's a big thing to organize."

This year, each church in the rotation will house overnight guests from about 4 p.m. to about 7 a.m. Sunday through Sunday. SOS volunteers will stay at the church each night as hosts who stay awake at all times.

During the day, guests will be given two tokens for public transportation to take them into town and then back to the church again at night.

"Each church covers expenses for one week," said Sheets. "From food to transportation, it gets pretty spendy."

Sheets said SOS will conduct sexual offender background checks on guests, but not outstanding warrant checks. She also said SOS will not serve anyone who has been drinking alcohol or using illegal drugs.

"If we have any idea someone is high or drunk, they will be refused," said Sheets. "It makes it too volatile for volunteers untrained to deal with that."

Toward the end of last year's seasons, SOS coordinators enforced bag checks on all guests. This year, all bags will be thoroughly checked, said Sheets.

"There was no other way to know if anyone was bringing in pills or drugs if we didn't do the check. If we found anything, they were booted from the program," said Sheets. "It became very important for people to know there was accountability."

On weekends when Churches United and Bi-County Community Action Programs are not open, SOS clients will intake at Ours to Serve House of Hospitality, which accepts families only. After their initial intake, guests of SOS will receive a travel voucher to take them to the designated SOS church.

People may use the SOS shelter location for as long as they want -- with no limit of nights.

"The glitch comes when you can't force people to deal with their issues," said Sheets. "It breaks your heart but you can't force them to do it."

Last year, through donations, SOS purchased air mattresses, which were transported from church to church for guests to sleep on. As the season progressed, many of the air mattresses were damaged and couldn't be used.

"We received a donation this year of mattresses for a more permanent solution to bedding," said Kay Mack, Beltrami County Auditor-Treasurer Kay Mack. "It just shows how much people really believe in this organization."

Anyone needing a safe, warm place to stay can sign up beginning Nov. 1 at the following locations:

- Between noon and 4 p.m. at Churches United, 414 Lincoln Ave. S.E., 444-1380.

E Between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. at BiCAP, 2529 15th St. N.W., 751-4631.

E Between noon and 4 p.m. weekends at Ours to Serve House of Hospitality, 416 Irvine Ave. N.W., 751-0722.

So far, 12 churches have signed up. The weeks of Nov. 22-28, Dec. 20-26 and Dec. 27-Jan. 2 still need to be filled, and more volunteers are needed.

Churches may combine resources. For example, one church may provide the shelter while another church provides volunteers to assist.

"Volunteers do not have to be associated with any church," Sheets said. "We need support of anyone with the desire to help the homeless population. They are out there."

Representatives of churches that would like to participate in SOS can contact Derk Maggert, SOS church facilitator, at or 209-2767.