Monday, June 29, 2009

For 20 years, Loaves and Fishes in Duluth has offered a helping hand

The program, which offers food and shelter to the homeless and others in need, celebrated its anniversary with a block party

No. 1 and No. 2 were a woman and child fleeing domestic abuse in 1989.

No. 3 and No. 4 were young Guatemalan brothers wanting to be reunited with their father in Canada.

Now 20 years later, the number of disadvantaged people assisted by Loaves and Fishes in Duluth has multiplied into the thousands. On Sunday afternoon, the Catholic Worker community, which provides the homeless and others with food and shelter, celebrated its 20th anniversary with a block party on Jefferson Street, where it was founded by Steve O’Neil and his wife, Angie Miller.

“After that start, it grew to single men, single women and families,” said O’Neil, who reported that the first woman is now remarried, her child is in college and the Guatemalan boys met their dad in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

“That is one of the real blessings Angie and I have — many of the folks we’ve helped out are doing well,” said O’Neil, a St. Louis County commissioner who has had an ancillary volunteer role at Loaves and Fishes for the past decade.

The Guatemalan boys were the first of an estimated 200 refugees whom Loaves and Fishes helped gain residence in Canada after fleeing persecution in Central America from 1989 to about 1994, O’Neil said.

“It was an active over ground, or underground, railroad for refugees to get into Canada because the U.S. was not accepting them,” O’Neil said.

Other Catholic Worker groups across the U.S. would call O’Neil with details on who sought sanctuary in Canada. Loaves and Fishes would then take them in and later drive them to the Canadian border, O’Neil said.

“It was a pretty amazing collection of people helping out,” O’Neil said.

Cooking hot dogs on the grill at Sunday’s block party was Gene Larson, who moved into one of the Loaves and Fishes houses last week with his wife and daughter. He said he lost his job at Field Logic in Superior in March and his unemployment payments ran out in May.

“They’ve given shelter, food and good people to talk to,” Larson said of the 13 community members who provide for the guests. “You don’t see people like this every day.”

Larson, a home interior craftsman by trade, said he has been searching everywhere for a new job, but the prospects have been minimal.

“I’m looking for anything to help my wife out, to give her a place to live,” Larson said.

After spending the past eight months at Loaves and Fishes, Kristina Stein found her own place to live in early June.

“The stress level was lower, first of all,” Stein, a mother of three, said of her stay. “And it was a helpful community. It was like a surrogate family for a while.”

Stein said the living situation at Loaves and Fishes allowed her to apply and receive low-income housing and Social Security disability payments as well as pursue her career as an artist.

“It feels like you’ve done something concrete,” said Greg Boertje-Obed, the longest-serving member of Loaves and Fishes, on his reaction to helping someone.

There is a societal misconception about who represents the homeless, O’Neil said. He said the classic stereotype is of a single man who is chronically homeless because of substance abuse. But the reality, he said, is that about 40 percent of the homeless are children and about 25 percent are women, with plenty of men that don’t have any issues with substance abuse.

“Most of the help we provide is brief with people needing some assistance to get back on their feet,” O’Neil said.

Providing that assistance, however, has become more difficult with the economic recession, Boertje-Obed said. On top of the quarterly newsletter soliciting donations, Loaves and Fishes sent a special fundraising letter in September to the individuals and churches that contribute to the group. It was the first time the Loaves and Fishes made that move in seven years, Boertje-Obed said.

“We’re reaching the point where we might have to do it again,” Boertje-Obed said Saturday. “The recession has been a big thing with that.”

The idealistic enthusiasm from young volunteers and interns has carried the good mood at Loaves and Fishes, Boertje-Obed said. He added, “They believe in service.” Duluth News Tribune

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