Eastern Iowa churches open doors to homeless

Program ‘a blessing' for needy families

A new effort by churches and a synagogue in Cedar Rapids and Marion is offering another shelter option for homeless families in Eastern Iowa.

13 area churches are participating in Family Promise of Linn County, the local affiliate of a national program that organizes churches to shelter and feed homeless families. Family Promise also provides support for parents’ job-hunting and other efforts to get back on their feet.

“In the past six months, I’ve only had two single beds available because I’ve had so many families,” said Larissa Ruffin, manager of the St. John of the Cross Catholic Worker House. “I have a family of six moving on Friday, and I have seven people ready to move in. There’s no end to it in sight.”

Ruffin said she reserves 18 of the 20 beds at Catholic Worker House, 1027 Fifth Ave. SE, for families.

One family’s story

After the violence of Chicago began to threaten the lives of their children, Vincent and Monique Nelson decided they needed a different future for their family. They gave away all of their belongings, and with four kids and seven suitcases, they came to Cedar Rapids, knowing they would be homeless once the bus ride was over.

On Dec. 21, after nearly two months in the Catholic Worker House, the Nelson family found their own home in Cedar Rapids with the help of caseworkers. Before they had fully moved out of the shelter, workers were getting another family and several individuals to fill their room.

The couple said it was painful to hear other families calling for space while their family was staying there.

“When you hear that phone ring as much as you do, it hurts,” Monique said.


“I am out on the streets with my family, with my wife in the streets just like the next person.” Vincent said. “But to hear that phone ring all day, and they always say, “We’re full, please call back at a later time, a later date.” We had to get out there and take care of our business. I´m so grateful to be able to give up that room for another family.”

Ruffin said she has regular contact with families facing a night on the street.

“I’ve had a lot of people call in and say they’re sleeping on the streets, there’s nothing they can do,” she said. “(Family Promise) might eliminate that problem.”

“We keep the families intact,” said Stefanie Munsterman-Robinson, president of the local chapter’s board. “A lot of shelters for safety reasons have to separate the children from the parent.”

Eastern Iowans in need

The most recent survey by the Linn County Continuum of Care Planning and Policy Committee found 87 children homeless the night of July 25. Children were 24 percent of the 362 homeless counted that night, consistent with previous counts conducted every January and July.

“We don’t generally find families in the street because they are many times given priority to get in a shelter,” said Ann Hearn, the county’s deputy director of community planning. “They might get into trouble with DHS (the state Department of Human Services), so they’re going to do everything they can to get them into a shelter.”

“It’s a huge commitment for a congregation, but it’s a blessing,” said the Rev. Jim Langley of Echo Hills Presbyterian Church in Marion. “I think it blesses the congregation as much as the people who stay here.”

Family Promise will shelter families for up to 120 days — long enough for a parent to find a job and save enough for rent, deposit and utilities.

“For some families it may be much shorter than that, but realistically it could start stretching out to that 90- to 100-day window,” said Becky Knudson, the local affiliate’s executive director and case manager.


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Host churches prepare a secure, private space for families to spend the night and provide breakfast, a brown-bag lunch and dinner. During the day, families are provided transportation to Family Promise’s day center at First Presbyterian Church. The church, at 310 Fifth St. SE, provides showers, a laundry, and a mailing address and telephone for job hunts.

Family Promise also provides job counseling and help with planning and goal-setting.

“This may be an empty place many days, because we hope they’ll be working” while children attend school or day care, Knudson said. “We’re trying to make this as homelike as we can.”

Shelter duties are rotated among participating churches. Organizers estimate a church would host a family every three to four months.

At Echo Hill, “we basically converted classrooms into hotel rooms,” Langley said. “We want people to feel at home when they come in and we want them to consider the facility as their own.”

Kyle Grillot, The Gazette, contributed to this story

More information

-- Family Promise of Linn County: (319) 640-0339 or

-- Donations may be sent to:

Family Promise of Linn County

P.O. Box 1443

Cedar Rapids, IA 52406-1443




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