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More than a hot meal: students serve the Franklin/Hiawatha homeless encampment

On a chilly November day, a group of students met by the door behind the North Central cafeteria to load up a hot meal for homeless residents of what has been named the Franklin/Hiawatha Encampment. The meal was prepared by Pioneer College Caterers, North Central’s food service partner, and funded by donations the students raised through chapel offerings.

The encampment is not far from North Central’s campus. Throughout the summer and into the fall, hundreds of people without permanent homes took up residence there, living in tents on a small tract of land owned by the City of Minneapolis. The city, social service agencies, nonprofit organizations, and camp representatives have been working to find better housing options.

The reasons the encampment grew to be a high-density neighborhood for the homeless are complex. But the needs of the people aren’t hard to articulate: shelter, sanitation, food, and safety. The camp’s proximity to campus and increasing news coverage of the situation in early fall caught the attention—and the hearts—of several North Central students.

The funds they raised will ultimately provide three meals for the nearly 300 people who have been living at the encampment. The students recognize that what they are providing may seem small in the context of the many needs at the encampment, but they knew they could not just do nothing.

North Central Social Work students step up to serve

Social Work professors Beth Brown, LICSW, and Mallory Knipe, MSW, LGSW, set aside time in their classes to discuss the complicated issues surrounding the encampment and how to respond as Christians and future social work practitioners.

Students in the Social Welfare Systems and Policy class wanted to help and began first with education. In a message to the community via Skyline, the campus news feed, the students shared this:

Our class has been encouraged by the number of NCU community members interested in helping with the Franklin-Hiawatha Homeless Camp. In our desire to serve, we want to make sure that our community is well informed and provides assistance in a way that respects the residents of the encampment, as well as the agencies that are diligently serving this population.

The students shared helpful perspectives in the article, such as having a basic understanding of the stories and trauma many have experienced to have landed at the encampment, recognizing that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and the importance of working with established agencies and experts in any attempt to offer help, versus trying to coordinate food or clothing drives on their own.

The students also facilitated an information session where any students who wanted to help or learn more about the underlying issues were invited to attend.

In October, Professor Brown learned that there was a critical need for feminine hygiene supplies for women at the camp. Brown shared the information with her students and several staff and faculty members on campus, who in turn shared the need with their own networks. Soon, supplies came flooding in to such a degree that they had to set up a storage area in Kingsriter Center to accommodate the donations. Brown and others have since then been stopping by weekly to deliver enough supplies to meet the needs.

Showing Christ’s love through a hot meal

But the students still wanted to do more. As the weather was starting to get colder, students learned that one of the most requested things from those staying at the encampment was a hot meal. They approached North Central leaders to ask if a chapel offering could be designated to provide a meal for the residents, and the answer was, “Yes.”

The first offering brought in around $500. A good start, but not enough to feed 300 people. A second offering was taken on Nov. 9, this time with more advance notice to the community, and enough money came in to provide two fully catered meals for the entire population of the encampment, plus a little left over.

Lexi Redenbaugh, a junior Social Work major, said that the student-led Social Work Association has plans to use the extra funds make a simple meal for the camp. “We really want to do what [the residents] need,” Redenbaugh said, “and not what we wanted to do for them. And what they said they needed was a hot meal.”

Professor Brown hopes her students will have a transformed perspective as they eat their own hot meals this Thanksgiving and believes that they may see something others miss when the table is so full. “It’s when we are with people who are broken that we recognize our own brokenness and our own need of [Christ],” she said. And that is something to be thankful for.