by Anthony Schnabel
In the dead of winter, as many downtowners retire from long days of work to warm apartments and swanky bars, those less privileged are settling into church basements. That’s if they’re lucky.
Downtown Fargo-Moorhead has seen a dramatic rise in homelessness since 2009, with shelters filled and people turned away every night, leaving many adults and, sometimes, children trying to stick it out in the winter’s harsh temperatures.
MSUM alumna Lisa Lipari, Churches United community center director, is part of a group combatting homelessness on a daily basis. Her team coordinates volunteers, donations, food and children’s programming.
“You wear many hats to work in a place like this,” Lipari said. “I’m challenged every day.”
Lipari graduated in 1985 with a degree in legal assistance and spent 10 years as a paralegal in the Cities. Eventually finding herself back in Fargo-Moorhead, Lipari reinvented her career and took a job at Churches United a year-and-a-half ago, utilizing skills from her past.
“I think what carries through is that you recognize the skills and strengths you learn are transferable. I’m a people person, and I really like details,” Lipari said. “As a legal assistant, you are working on multiple cases at a time, so you have to keep a number of plates spinning, and that’s what I do here.”
A 2013 Wilder Research survey found there are more than 800 homeless people living in our area — a 15 percent increase from 2009. It’s a particularly alarming statistic, considering Fargo-Moorhead offers just 300 beds any given night.
“I personally didn’t want to believe that number, because I thought, ‘Where are they?’” Lipari said. “During the day, they’re walking down the street just like you and I. We just don’t realize they are either sleeping under a bridge or a shed they found.”
Churches United’s building can hold about 70 people including children, and it’s unique in its ability to not only shelter individual men and women, but also families. The YWCA is the only other facility that shelters families, but it doesn’t offer shelter to fathers and boys over 12 years old.
From mid-December to mid-January, Lipari said 15 families found new homes, and at least six individuals were able to find places of their own — something the staff at Churches United doesn’t take for granted.
“We all want to celebrate with people, because that’s what puts wind in our sails to keep us going,” Lipari said. “That’s the whole point.”
Lipari said a former resident who recently found a new home can’t even remember how long he’d been homeless.
“He moved into his apartment,” Lipari said, “and there were about three or four of us in tears because he made the comment, ‘Wow. I’ve got a place for my stuff, and I can lock the door tonight.’”
Andrea DeMars, volunteer and donations coordinator at Churches United, said empowering and supporting residents is key to them finding success after their stay. That’s something Lipari excels at.
“Instilling hope and putting smiles on peoples faces … making their experience at the shelter as pleasant as it can be,” DeMars said. “Giving them the hope they need to succeed — that’s something Lisa is great at doing.”
Lipari said kids are the face of Churches United. The connection the shelter’s staff builds with residents, especially the children, gives purpose to their work.
A couple months ago, Lipari met a little boy when he moved into Churches United with his dad and sister.
“They had been sleeping outside somewhere, (and) he was excited they got to sleep on mats in our board room,” Lipari said. “Little kids view the world so differently, and, being 5, he sees me come in and out of this office.
“He asked me if I sleep in my office, (and) I said, ‘Well, some people might think that.’ He’s hugging me, and he’s looking up at me with his beautiful, chubby face, and he asks, ‘Well, where do you sleep?’ and I gulped hard and said, ‘I go home and sleep in my home’ … He was so happy to be able to sleep in our board room, and he thought that everyone that works here sleeps here, too.”
Lipari has a lot of responsibility, but she said she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It can be exhausting, but it’s the most meaningful job I’ve ever had.”