Kalamazoo's First United Methodist Church downtown helps the unhoused with multiple programs

Updated: May 27, 2022 and June 10.

A Way Home — Housing Solutions: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's series on solutions to homelessness and ways to increase affordable housing. It is made possible by a coalition of funders including the City of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, the ENNA Foundation, Kalamazoo County Land Bank, and LISC.

Like most communities, Kalamazoo has struggled for decades with homelessness. There are an array of government and nonprofit agencies and services focused on the problem. But they are not alone. Some members of the area’s faith community are also deeply involved. They include the First United Methodist Church in downtown Kalamazoo.

Beginning in 2016, the church began planning for what’s known as its “Dream Team” initiative. After finishing a fund drive to pay for expansion and improvements at its own building, FUMC decided that its next campaign would be something that helped the wider community. That became the Dream Fund. It had the goal of raising about $1 million over three years, beginning in 2019.

Mark Oudersluys says the Dream Fund may be new but the church’s commitment to helping end homelessness is not. Mark Oudersluys is FUMC’s Dream Team facilitator. He says the church decided that the best way it could help Kalamazoo’s unhoused residents was to fund programs that were already established. They include the Kalamazoo YWCA’s shelter for victims of domestic abuse and their children. Oudersluys says the fund is providing $550,000 to help the Y buy four transitional houses, "Because their shelter is always full. And until they get people moved out of the shelter, they can't bring new people in. They're trying to find housing for these people in Battle Creek, in Kalamazoo, anywhere they can, until they can get them into the shelter."

But that’s easier said than done, since the Kalamazoo area is about 6,000 units short in affordable housing, according to recent estimates. Oudersluys says the YWCA has seven families at its shelter that have government housing vouchers, but officials say, “There's no place for them to go. We can't find any place in Kalamazoo that will accept them." He says that demonstrates the urgent need for the new transitional homes.

In the first of a three-year commitment, FUMC’s Dream Fund has already provided $90,000 to build a new Habitat for Humanity home in Kalamazoo which is expected to be ready by July or August 2022. The fund has also raised $75,000 to support critical home repairs over the three-year period through Community Homeworks, led by Kalamazoo City commissioner Chris Praedel. Oudersluys says that’s a way to prevent people from losing homes they already have. "It's difficult to get people out of homelessness and into alternative living situations. It's much more cost-effective and easier to prevent them from becoming homeless."

Other projects funded by the FUMC initiative with a three-year commitment include Building Blocks which helps people organize to improve their own neighborhoods in Kalamazoo. The church is also working with Kalamazoo Collective Housing, a program that provides low-cost units that include meals and utilities in exchange for commitments by residents to participate in the project by handling chores and working together to solve problems. With help from FUMC, the Collective has been able to purchase three houses.

Mark Oudersluys and Dick Shilts are part of a larger group at First United Methodist Church working to help those who are unhoused.Oudersluys says the Dream Fund may be new but the church’s commitment to helping end homelessness is not. He says that’s in FUMC’s “DNA” – “This is not our first foray into this. It's probably the biggest that we've had, but the church had been doing this for 40 years."

Members of Kalamazoo First United Methodist Church have helped the unhoused in other, more direct ways. It has provided free meals at the church, and then at several homeless encampments after the COVID pandemic began. It also began providing free mobile phones to the unhoused. 

FUMC volunteer Dick Shilts is also on the Housing Task Force at the Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy and Action in the Community, or ISAAC. He says homeless residents were asked what they needed most, and that led to the cellphone project assisted by a federal “free minutes” program and help by a local manager of several Cricket mobile phone stores. Shilts says the phones allow the unhoused to stay in touch with their families as well as contact health care providers and potential employers. "It might just be another little band-aid on this gaping wound so that it will enable them to get out of the position that they're in."

Shilts says FUMC is trying to gauge how effective the program has been as it meets with officials from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation about plans to expand it.

Shilts and his wife are also involved in efforts to get the unhoused warm clothing. Shilts says they heard about the Empowerment Plan initiative in Detroit that employs the homeless and those struggling with addiction to make the garments that are a combination of a coat and a sleeping bag. In Detroit, the initiative has distributed about 43,000 of them since the effort began in 2014. But they cost $155 each. So, the Shilts have raised enough money to hand out 275 of them in the Kalamazoo area so far. 

Dick Shilts of First United Methodist Church helped bring a combination of a coat and a sleeping bag to the unhoused in Kalamazoo.Shilts says, "Having long-range plans and long-range fundraising for adequate housing for people is an absolute necessity. And what we're doing with the Dream Team addresses that. However, in the meantime, what are we doing with those people who are going to be outside tonight and sleeping in cars tonight?" He says the phones and the coats are two answers to that question.

Though there are a variety of programs and agencies working on the issue, homelessness persists in the area as it does nationwide. Speaking for himself, not FUMC, Mark Oudersluys says he thinks one reason may be the fragmentation caused by having so many groups going their own way locally. "It would be nice if there could be some sort of cooperation and a sort of master plan built by all of those organizations together,” Oudersluys says. “Is it possible? I'm not sure, because they're all governmental institutions. They have their own rules, and they have to abide by what their own policies are."
Community Homeworks is supported by the First United Methodist Church. Scott Moore, Home Repair Technician, Construction Manager Tom Tishler, and Executive Director Chris Praedel from Community Homeworks.

But Ouderslys says one way around that could be a more targeted approach. He points to a program to help homeless veterans in Grand Rapids that has won national attention by almost eliminating that problem there. Oudersluys says he thinks something similar could work in Kalamazoo to support specific groups, including veterans, victims of domestic and sexual violence, and LGBTQ+ people. But he says that will take work – and coordination – by the City and the County as well as area nonprofits. “If they would develop a master plan and concentrate on that, they can address two or three of these segments of the homeless population."

First United Methodist church has long done work to help the unhoused.