Homeless shelter reaches one-year milestone
| ||Open house, fundraiser set|
The public is invited to an open house at the facility at 1107 Heart Island Parkway, Sunday, March 4 from 1-3 p.m.
Additionally, Benjamin’s will hold a fundraiser the week of April 16 – called A Week of One Night Dinners – in which restaurants and individuals agree to serve a certain amount of plates. People make reservations and pay Benjamin’s for the meal ahead of time.
All proceeds go to Benjamin’s House. For details and a complete list of participating restaurants and private homes, go to
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RICE LAKE – On a still, sunny morning a few weeks ago, two men ice-fished about 50 yards away from a former convent on the shore of lower Rice Lake. They sat on overturned buckets, angling with jigs through holes in the ice while they basked in the sun. A red truck sat on the ice nearby.
It’s a serene, common northern Wisconsin scene.
What’s not common is that it’s the view outside a homeless shelter’s window.
Thanks to the generosity of the Sisters of St. Joseph in the Rice Lake area, their former convent on Heart Island – a point that stretches out into the lake itself – is now Benjamin’s House, a year-old, 17-room homeless shelter. Benjamin’s is named in honor of Mother Mary Benjamin, the mother superior of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis, who, according to the community’s history, welcomed another order of sisters who were poor, homeless and faced with disbanding.
Prior to becoming a homeless shelter, it had been many things since its days as a convent, said Deanna Ewing, Benjamin’s House executive director since last fall.
“At one point in time it was a women’s shelter, a halfway house, it was the North Star Academy Alternative School,” she said.
‘They look like you and I’
The stated mission of Benjamin’s House is, “To work together as a non-profit agency with community organizations and individuals to provide housing opportunities for the homeless population in Barron County.”
Ewing said clients served at Benjamin’s don’t usually fit the stereotype of the chronic, urban poor person who is often dogged by mental illness and/or addiction.
“I always tell people they look a lot like you and I,” she said, noting that often they’re the working homeless. “The jobs don’t pay; there are no jobs. People are working. We see it everywhere. It’s what homelessness looks like in rural America.”
Quite common are situations where life unexpectedly handed good people lemons. Ewing said many people are only a paycheck or two away from homelessness.
“Generally, something happens. It’s ‘life hands you lemons,’” she said, citing situations of domestic abuse, a house issue like uncontrollable black mold, promised jobs that fell through, someone gets sick or injured and can’t work anymore.
Ewing said the federal Housing and Urban Development definition of homelessness “includes people who sleep on couches because they maybe lost their (financial) support. Then they go live with their aunt or their grandma, and grandma gets sick of having you on their couch.”
Before Benjamin’s House opened, there was nowhere formal to go. Generally, when rural homelessness strikes, affected people sleep at Aunt Marge’s or move back in with mom and don’t think of themselves as homeless. But for people with no family in the area, Ewing said, “That’s how they end up here. They don’t have the support. When there’s no one here to help you, it’s rough.”
She told of one man who came up here with friends from Illinois, thinking he could find work here through a family contact, but it fell through and there was nowhere for him to stay.
Needs and limits
Ninety days is the official limit for how long a homeless person is allowed to stay at Benjamin’s, but in unusual circumstances it can be extended a bit. For example, a specific apartment won’t be ready for them until a few days after their time limit is up.
Ewing said that during the time they are at Benjamin’s, clients are required to do things to resolve their homelessness.
“They meet with us twice a week … about jobs and all of their goals,” she said.
It’s a 24-hour supervised shelter that includes case management services like assistance with goal setting, problem solving and connecting with area resources. According to the shelter’s website, “In 2010, 63 Barron County households were reported as homeless to just one agency; 140 have been housed at Benjamin’s House since February 2011. Until Benjamin’s House opened in February 2011, Barron County had no homeless shelters, yet it has the largest population between Chippewa and Douglas Counties.”
Before Benjamin’s opened, Ewing said, “The sisters got a lot of phone calls,” for helping out homeless persons. In 2009, 257 people had called “before we even opened,” she said. “There is a guest house on the grounds, a duplex. The sisters would offer that. Obviously if it was full, it was full.”
The Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul Society were “big advocates,” she said, in terms of wanting to get Benjamin’s open and operating.
Sr. Claudine Balio, a Sister of St. Joseph, is on Benjamin’s board of directors, but Ewing said, “It was just a lot of individuals who got together to discuss such a need for what we do, establish a common goal. Many of those original planners are still on the board.”
Funding sources varied, local Financial backers of Benjamin’s House are mostly local and include Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, all of whom are guided by Christ’s words: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.”
Catholics are well-represented, too. The Sisters of St. Joseph provided the biggest donation – their former convent. Other Catholic supporters include individuals as well as the Council of Catholic Women at St. Joseph Parish, Rice Lake, and six Knights of Columbus councils. Local St. Vincent de Paul Society volunteers also refer clients and offer assistance.
Room sponsors agree to furnish and maintain an individual bedroom at Benjamin’s. At this writing, Knights of Columbus Council 2137 and CCW at St. Joseph, Rice Lake, do this.
‘Every day, it’s never the same’
“The shelter gets cleaned because everybody has a chore,” Ewing said, “That’s part of the rules of being here”
Residents do laundry according to a schedule made out by room number; when their number comes up, that’s when they may go use the laundry facilities. “But if you need a pair of pants before work…no one’s gone without,” she said, emphasizing that there’s flexibility and understanding built into the operation.
On four nights a week, various civic organizations come in to fix, serve and consume meals with residents. The reason for that is to help “break those stereotypes” community members might have about homeless people, Ewing said, and to encourage positive social interaction for the people staying there.
“Every day, it’s never the same,” she said.
© Superior Catholic Herald, March 1, 2012