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Grace Place asks for sponsors

For its 10th birthday, Grace Place is inviting people to join a celebration on Sunday, Sept. 30 from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Grace Place is also asking for sponsors for its 10th birthday.

According to Grace Place Director Duana Bremer, the shelter has had sponsors for each room in the shelter since it began operation in 2002. However, after 10 years, Bremer said it was time to start a new group of sponsors.

According to Bremer, 11 rooms have already been claimed by groups from River Falls, New Richmond, Somerset and Hudson. There are still three bedrooms, and seven other rooms unsponsored.

Bremer said she would like to have most of the rooms sponsored by the time the event begins on Sept. 30.

Bremer said the shelter has come a long way in the past 10 years, but it is also needed more than it was when it was started. In fact, according to Bremer, the homeless population has increased 500 percent since Grace Place was opened in 2002.

"I think when the shelter opened the community wasn't even aware that there was a homeless problem," Bremer said. "Even now it's hard to see because the homeless in our community are hidden."

Gail Winship, Grace' Place's first director and current Western Wisconsin Community Action Programs (WestCAP) employee, said her feelings looking at Grace Place today are a bit bittersweet.

"I'm very happy to see that it's still around and still a vital part of the community," Winship said, "but I'm also disheartened that there's still so much need for it."

On the other hand, Bremer said most people who go through Grace Place's program and find a home, stay in their new permanent home.

"Eighty-nine percent of the individuals that complete the program at Grace Place are still permanently housed after a year," said Bremer.

Winship said getting Grace Place started was a collaborative effort on the part of many people.

"Everybody played a key role in their area of expertise," Winship said.

Winship said her involvement with Grace Place began when Bobbie Jaeger of WestCAP mentioned to Winship the idea of starting a homeless shelter in the area.

"I just remember thinking that was a really good idea and that we really did need one, because we had so many clients that we weren't able to service," Winship said, "and all the shelters were so far away in the Cities."

Winship said she and Jaeger began working with United Way Director John Coughlin, who wrote the initial grants that helped give Grace Place the chance to start. With Winship representing the Salvation Army, Jaeger representing WestCAP and Coughlin representing United Way, the group began to add representatives from other local non-profit organizations. Coughlin said those different representatives of non-profit organizations founded the Pierce-St. Croix Housing Resource Network and began working to form a homeless shelter in the Pierce-St. Croix county area.

"It was a process. It was trying to identify the right people to pull together in a meeting and to discuss. We tried to pull all different aspects and needs that people would have," Winship said. "Everybody played a key role in their area of expertise."

Coughlin said it was around this time that Joe Bilgrien, another member of the Pierce-St. Croix Housing Resource Network, wrote a series of two letters to the editor titled "No room at the inn." These stories, Bilgrien said, told the tales of two homeless people in the area and really spread awareness of the issue of homelessness.

"A lot of people didn't believe there were any homeless people," Bilgrien said, who was working for Lutheran Social Services at the time he wrote the letters. "So I wrote a letter to the editor."

One letter was the story of a woman who lived in a truck, and another was the story of a man who lived under a bridge. Each person said they knew roughly 15 to 30 other homeless people, said Bilgrien.

Bilgrien said he is sometimes credited with beginning Grace Place, because of the letters to the editor he wrote. He said he is only part of the team that helped create Grace Place.

"The real credit goes to all those people that combined to help out and to get the thing started," Bilgrien said.

Coughlin, who is still executive director of United Way, said being a part of that team, and seeing so many people pull together to help create Grace Place, was inspirational to him.

"It's one of the most rewarding things I've done," Coughlin said.

After Bilgrien's letters hit the presses, Coughlin said the Pierce-St. Croix Housing Resource Network signed an agreement with St. Anne's Church to use their convent, which had just emptied, as a location for a homeless shelter. Coughlin said much renovation was done, and it was at that time that the first room sponsors began supporting individual rooms in Grace Place, providing materials to refurbish and furnish each room.

Coughlin said it's especially rewarding to know that most of the people who go through Grace Place and find permanent housing stay in permanent housing.

"It's just extremely gratifying and something the United Way board of directors is really proud of and happy to support each year," Coughlin said.

Bremer said anyone interested in sponsoring a room can call 715-247-2944, and ask for Lori.

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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