Belinda Bowden couldn't believe she was homeless. The 41-year-old had been ascending the corporate ladder, making $50,000 a year as a Kmart assistant store manager, when one by one the rungs snapped.

Asked to lie about the store's stability to potential employees, Bowden quit her job. Her savings account depleted by credit-card debt and medical bills, Bowden couldn't pay her rent. Two months later, she was standing on the street in DuPage County, Illinois, with her 11- and 13-year-old sons.

Bouncing between hotels and friends' homes, Bowden eventually found shelter at Bridge Communities, a transitional housing organization that began as a small-group project in a local church in 1988.

"God can scoop you out of the gutter immediately," Bowden said. Scooping people up is Bridge Communities' specialty. The $1.6 million nonprofit now owns 70 apartments—almost all leased to single mothers. The organization vets clients and provides counseling services. But they depend on area churches for most of the vital work, from mentoring residents to furnishing apartments.

Small-Group Beginning

Bridge Communities started 17 years ago with a heartrending story that inspired two men. Bridge cofounder Bob Wahlgren heard about a little girl who was living in a car in Glen Ellyn, a Chicago suburb, and attending school a couple blocks from his house. When the school found out that her family had been using a bogus address, her parents took the family and fled.

"I thought I was living in the suburbs where that doesn't happen," Wahlgren said. "I always felt we had a vibrant economy. [Suddenly] I felt like my town was more vulnerable—less secure—than I thought."

Wahlgren spoke with Mark Milligan, a fellow member of First Congregational Church of Glen Ellyn. They called friends from church and invited them to Wahlgren's house to talk about helping families with such struggles.

"There were about 20 people in my living room," Wahlgren said, "and we passed around a legal pad, asking them to join us in sponsoring an apartment for $500 a month."

Milligan then called an emergency shelter and found a family who needed help.

The first family they mentored was a husband, wife, and two-year-old boy whose journey to homelessness began the night their apartment ceiling collapsed while the couple lay in bed. The wife's arm was broken, and because she lost the use of her hand, she was fired from her job. Furious, the family withheld rent and demanded that the landlord fix the ceiling and compensate the wife for her lost wages. They were eventually evicted, but not before spending all the money they had saved in rent.

Article continues below

With the church's help, the family regained their financial independence in about 90 days. "It worked out great," Wahlgren said. With this successful experience behind them, Wahlgren and Milligan decided that "a 90-day time frame would be appropriate" for getting other families back on their feet. It took a second family to teach Wahlgren and Milligan, now the president of Bridge Communities, that most families need more time—usually two years.

An Intimate Thing

In 1990, Bridge incorporated as a nonprofit organization, and since then, congregations of many sizes and denominations have joined Bridge's efforts by adopting one or more families. The partnering churches pay $650 monthly for rent, which helps to cover Bridge's services, and promise to appoint mentors who will work with the clients for up to two years.

Besides paying for rent, each church also decides how much of a family's needs they will cover.

St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church pays rent and all utilities, though with their first family, they also covered phone expenses. Since phone charges varied so widely, says parishioner Jean Mertens, "We thought it taught better responsibility for them to deal with it on their own."

The church also provides any furniture the family may need, usually donated by church members.

"Our [resident] family had very little," said Martha Staky, chair of the Bridge committee at First United Methodist Church of Glen Ellyn. "We made a list and publicized it in the congregation. We literally got everything in four days." Staky collected a living-room set, a dining-room table, beds, dressers, a coffee table, and a grill. "It was amazing. I had to stop it. I had to say, 'We don't need [any more]. We're done.' "

St. Thomas, a congregation of 3,800 families, pays for most of their two Bridge apartments through the church's annual budget. A special offering on Thanksgiving and occasional fundraisers bring in the rest of the $17,000 they spend annually on the families.

Churches also supply two or three mentors per family. After training with Bridge, mentors meet in the family's Bridge apartment weekly to go over the budget and help the family set goals.

"Being in a relationship like that is such an intimate thing," said Mertens, who has mentored three families. "It makes you look back at yourself a lot. I'm telling this person she should be able to do this, and I thought, Could I do that?"

Article continues below

Mentor and client meetings are not always smooth, especially when they don't agree on budget issues.

Client families promise to show mentors their checkbooks, pay stubs, receipts—everything—so that mentors can help families stay on track. One surprising argument crops up again and again, over tithing.

"More than 50 percent of our families are African American," Wahlgren said. "They belong to a church as part of their upbringing, probably a Baptist church. They were raised to be tithers to their local church. [Some] mentors are saying, 'Well, let's look at your budget. … You can't afford that.' "

Bowden disputed the issue with her mentor. By cutting back on dry cleaning and getting fewer haircuts, she fit a tithe into her budget.

Bowden said this is just one area where cultures occasionally clash between the clients and the mentors and Bridge staff, most of whom are white. It's difficult to find African American staff in a county where 84 percent of the population is white, said Jennifer Jerzyk, resource development director at Bridge. Instead of viewing the difference as a problem, though, Bridge treats it as an opportunity for the two subcultures to learn from one another.

Jerzyk calls Bridge "a ministry opportunity provider," giving churches the ability to help the poor and influence a family.

To vet families, the churches rely on Bridge, which annually sifts through about 400 applications to fill the 35 open apartments. A rent-free apartment, even with a mentor looking over one's shoulder, sounds heavenly to many who don't have an address. But the list of requirements to qualify for Bridge housing is strict.

Bridge works only with families, usually single moms and their children, Jerzyk said. "They must not have any unresolved dependency issues, like drugs or alcohol. They can't have active domestic violence issues—otherwise we refer them to a domestic violence shelter first. They must be able to work. Our main goal is for people to be able to take care of themselves."

To be accepted into the program, families do not have to profess Christian faith or attend a church, and church mentors decide if and how they will share their faith with the families. Staky is happy with the open policy, as it allows her to demonstrate Christ's love in action. "Whether they are or are not Christians is irrelevant to me," she said.

Bowden said she can clearly see God at work in Bridge. "I feel Bridge is a faith pipeline. It is such an unconditional organization," she said. She senses the Christian commitment of her mentors and respects that. While Bridge doesn't insist that its partners be Christians—it has also solicited help from businesses and non-Christian organizations—Jerzyk said it is primarily Christians who have been opening their schedules and wallets for the homeless.

Article continues below
New Horizons

The rent from the churches supplies about one-third of Bridge's budget. The rest comes from donations and government grants. Bridge uses the money to cover additional services such as employment counseling and tutoring for school children.

"The 'wraparound services' are enormous," Jerzyk said. "We are putting $20,000 a year into each of these families. We do it because it works."

Phone interviews with clients 6 and 12 months after they graduate have proven this success. In Bridge's 2004 survey, 94 percent of clients who had graduated from the program in 2003 lived in permanent housing. And 92 percent held a job, with a median income of about $30,000.

Wahlgren said Bridge is about serving "the poor in our midst."

"A lot of people don't realize it," he said, "but people born and raised in this community have had to go through our program because they were homeless."

That's a surprise, because Bridge works in DuPage County, the wealthiest in Illinois and one of the wealthiest in the nation. Median home prices are $327,000, according to the Illinois Association of Realtors. For families making less than the median income of about $68,000, owning a home is almost an impossible dream.

But Wahlgren has been thinking about that problem as well and has just opened the next phase in Bridge's development. Using a grant of $100,000 from the federal government, he bought a six-flat apartment building, which he's converting into five condos. Bridge will sell each two-bedroom unit at 80 percent of market value to program graduates.

"You buy the condo at $100,000 and work through the opportunities to finance it," he said. "If you make $11 an hour, you can afford this condo. We're going to take people from homelessness to home ownership."

Bowden graduated from the program in June 2005 and is now renting a home with her sons. She said her experience at Bridge was life-renewing. "Some of the Enemy's keys to defeating us are through finances and family," she said. "Bridge gives us support to rebuild those two things. I love them."

Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Article continues below

Related Elsewhere:

Bridge Communities has more information about their ministry, including the annual Sleep Out for the homeless.

One DuPage newspaper looked at the difficulty of finding affordable housing in the county.

More Christianity Today articles on community ministry include:

It Takes a Schoolhouse | How one Mexican pastor is transforming his community. (Dec. 15, 2005)
Hurricane Heroes | Government may have been tripped up by Katrina and Rita, but the Southern Baptists, among others, are standing tall. (Oct. 21, 2005)
Rita's Punch Strains Gulf Churches | Following Katrina, relief efforts overwhelmed by second flood of evacuees. (Sept. 26, 2005)
Amid the Evacuees | How churches in Houston, among other cities, began picking up the pieces. (Sept. 8, 2005)
I Was a Stranger | Ministry in the Astrodome and beyond. (Sept. 8, 2005)
Saving Strangers | The journey of one Somali Bantu family in the largest group resettlement of African refugees in U.S. history. (July 2, 2004)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.