House rehabbed to serve as home for homeless

By Fred Koenig, Special Contributor…

ST. LOUIS—A group from Lafayette Park United Methodist Church is out to address the issue of homelessness in a very direct manner: They intend to provide people with homes.

The church’s HomeFirst ministry is working on rehabbing a four-unit house in St. Louis, Mo., that will give four homeless people a place to live. They expect this house to be the first of many.

Bethany Spaulding and Fred Domke explain the renovations at the HomeFirst house. PHOTOS BY FRED KOENIG

The idea originated in a small group study. The Rev. Kathleen Wilder, pastor at Lafayette Park UMC, was working on her doctorate in ministry, and as part of that program she presented a five-week study in ethics at the church, which examined poverty, its causes and effects. Her expectations were low.

“When I scheduled it, I thought, ‘At least I’ll have a few nights off when nobody shows up,’” Ms. Wilder said.

However, it turned out to be the best-attended study she had ever offered at the church. At the end of the five weeks, someone suggested that rather than just move on to the next study, they should take action to fight poverty.

The result was the development of HomeFirst. The ministry’s first project was supporting Bridge Bread, a program in which homeless people are given the opportunity to earn a wage by baking bread that is sold at area churches. Bridge Bread continues to serve its purpose, and HomeFirst is now well underway with its work on a house on Miami Street in St. Louis.

The HomeFirst board of directors has a diverse range of people, all with critical skills to help in some part of the process, including an occupational therapist, social worker, lawyer, real estate broker, architect, contractor and business people. Only about half the board are members of Lafayette Park UMC, the rest are from various other Christian faiths.

“You can get a job, but if you don’t have an address, a place to shower and a place to get a good night’s sleep, it can be hard to reintegrate,” said Fred Domke, vice president of the HomeFirst board.

Ross Rotherham, president of the board, explained that the program goes beyond affordable housing.

“We’re also providing people with bus passes, and helping them utilize services that are available from places like The Bridge,” he said.

Ross Rotherham, president of the HomeFirst board of directors, gives a tour of the first house the non-profit group has purchased in St. Louis. The house will be divided into four units, providing homes for people who have been on the streets and are seeking to rebuild their lives.

As people move up in income, their rent will also increase.

“Our plan is to operate at break-even, if you ignore the cost of acquisition and rehabilitation,” Mr. Domke said. “That way we’ll be able to scale up without having to raise more money for operating expenses.”

The board had bid on four houses that they didn’t get. Then they held a prayer meeting, and Mr. Domke sketched out an image that came to him of a house with a little triangular porch on front. When they went to check out a house at 3944 Miami St., it looked remarkably similar to Mr. Domke’s sketch.

“I don’t think we picked this house, I think God picked it,” Mr. Domke said.

The house was purchased in October. It’s a home that was foreclosed on, and has been vacant for some time. The board did not have access to the house before purchasing it, but once they were able to enter they found that the furnace worked and the roof didn’t leak. They spent $3,400 to have new plumbing put in, and went to work on the interior.

The goal is to have two of the four units ready to move into within two months. In addition to the people from LaFayette Park who are involved, volunteers from Manchester UMC and Living Word UMC in Wildwood have worked on the house.

The ministry aims to help people who don’t meet specific criteria for other programs, but are unable to get started again on their own.

The mission focus of Lafayette Park UMC has become one of the main ways people are drawn to the church. When Bethany Spaulding moved to the Lafayette Square neighborhood, she visited with Ms. Wilder as she considered where to make her new church home. Ms. Wilder shared her vision for the city, and how it could be transformed by people addressing the issues of poverty.

“I felt prompted to support that church, period,” Ms. Spaulding said. “We’re all just doing what God has called us to do.”

This “in progress” picture of a bathroom shows the new plumbing and wiring in the walls.

Mr. Rotherham explained that the HomeFirst group started more than a year ago, and typically meets an hour or two a week, but no one has dropped out.

“There’s still momentum there,” he said.

Mr. Domke estimates that more than half of the congregation at Lafayette Park are not from Methodist backgrounds, but were drawn to the church by its mission service.

“Mission work brings together liberals and conservatives. When we do this, we see that we are really looking at the world in the same way,” Mr. Domke said. “There are no political debates in our meetings.”

Ms. Spaulding agrees that helping others is the best way to bridge divides.

“I wish people would post more about being in mission on Facebook, rather than all of the ideological stuff,” she said. “The political fighting is such a waste of time.”

HomeFirst purchased the house for about $52,000 including closing costs. The board hopes to keep the total cost to under $100,000 when renovations are complete. They started with individual donations and some grants.

One of the board members even raffled off his Mercedes as a fundraiser.

“We didn’t really make any more than we would have by just selling the car, but we got quite a bit of publicity out of it,” Mr. Rotherham said.

Ms. Wilder has preached that there are many more empty houses in St. Louis than homeless people. Empty houses cause problems, and the neighbors on Miami Street have been supportive of the HomeFirst project.

“You have to explain the difference between a shelter and a house,” Mr. Domke said.

Residents will be on a tiered system, in which their privileges increase and rules decrease the longer they live in the house without any problem. If there is a problem, they get bumped back down a tier.

“That gives us a way to be able to enforce rules without just kicking someone out when they mess up,” Mr. Domke said.

It is a permanent situation, in that residents will never graduate or be forced to move out. On the other hand, they are under no obligation to stay.

For more information about the ministry, visit

Mr. Koenig is editor of the Missouri Conference Review, where this story first appeared.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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