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Organization provides shelter for homeless at Bemidji churches

Servants of Shelter guest Don Wilkey, right, visits with volunteers Lisa Wisniewski, center, and Phoebe Lee Mathius last week at Calvary Chapel in Bemidji. (Monte Draper/Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI - Six months ago, one area couple had it all - a house where they lived with their three children, a car and a job.

But, said the couple, who since lost all but the car, that was when they hit rock bottom.

Now as guests of Servants of Shelter, the couple has hope for the future and a warm place to stay with three meals a day.

SOS is a new organization providing shelter for the homeless at churches in Bemidji. Since Oct. 30, SOS has been offering overnight accommodations, hot supper, hot breakfast and sack lunches to families, single men and single women.

"We're averaging between 10 and 15 different people at the church sites," said Kathie Pederson, SOS director. "We can take up to 20 people."

Each church in the rotation houses overnight guests from 4 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. for six nights at a time. A man and a woman stay at the church overnight as hosts who stay awake at all times. The program will continue through the winter and spring months until March 30.

Pederson said reaching out to the homeless is what Jesus would have done, and area churches have responded.

"We've seen the churches have the attitude to give the best to these people," she said.

SOS guests, she said, have responded with appreciation.

"They seem very happy to be able to sleep in a safe place and a warm place," Pederson said. "They've been very wonderful and very thankful for what people are doing for them."

'A real blessing'

From their temporary living quarters last week at Calvary Chapel, the area couple who has found hope through SOS shared their story.

The husband, who wished to be identified as Joseph, said a January 2007 car accident prevented him from working and providing for his family. Joseph said the accident opened the door to drug addictions for both him and his wife because of the amount of the medication in their home.

"We had a house, we had a car, we had money, we had a job," said Joseph's wife, who wished to be identified as Julie.

Julie, who had a job, entered inpatient treatment for her addiction. With no income, the couple could no longer pay the bills and lost their house.

Additionally, Julie said, "Because of our addictions, we lost our kids to foster care."

Joseph and Julie decided to move to Bemidji to be closer to their treatment programs, but with both not working, they couldn't find housing. This summer, they lived in a tent. As the weather turned cold, they began sleeping in their car. In November, they found SOS.

"It's been a real blessing to have a warm place to sleep and warm meals," Julie said.

Joseph, who was recently offered a job, said SOS hasn't just given them a place to stay, it's also given them spirituality, hope and a sense of security.

"It's made us rich on the inside," he said. "Richer than we've ever felt before."

Giving to others

One recent night at Calvary Chapel, Karin Moreno volunteered with her daughter Dallas, 13, whose eighth-grade advent project at St. Philip's School is to donate to SOS.

"This season is just for giving," said Karin Moreno, who attends Trinity Lutheran Church with her daughter.

Phoebe Lee Mathius, a Bemidji State University junior from Malaysia, said she and other BSU students were inspired to volunteer with SOS after Pederson spoke at House of Prayer.

"It's a new experience for us, and to be in that position to serve others ... it's a good thing," Mathius said.

Cindy Schuppert, who attends Calvary Chapel, said she was asked to volunteer. She said she feels so blessed in her life and wants to help others.

"I've never worked at a shelter before," she said. "I've always wanted to, though."

Needs for new year

With the new year around the corner, SOS has opportunities for the community to help.

"As we go into 2009, we could use a few more church sites," Pederson said.

The list of church sites currently includes Evangelical Covenant, Evangelical Free, Mount Zion, Crossroads, First Baptist, First Lutheran, Calvary Chapel and First Assembly.

Most of the sites have showers. However, having showers is not a prerequisite for a church to be a host site.

Other churches, including Tenstrike Community, St. Philip's and House of Prayer, have provided volunteers to provide meals and work shifts. The soup kitchens at United Methodist and Mount Zion churches also provide meals.

On weekdays, First Presbyterian Church hosts SOS guests from 8:30-10:30 a.m.

Besides more church sites, Pederson said SOS could use more volunteers to serve on the overnight shifts at the sites as well as to serve on the morning shift at First Presbyterian. All shift volunteers are screened.

Churches interested in being host sites and people interested in volunteering may contact Pederson at 760-0029 or