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Discover the Lake Minnetonka Area, November/December 2006

The community's sleep out

What began with Bob Fisher raising money for Thanksgiving dinners has grown into a community-wide endeavor

By Kelly Westhoff

Zach Verbick, a Wayzata High School Senior, is trading his bed for a sleeping bag. He's also trading his bedroom for a tent. While a summer camp out may sound fun, Verbick isn't zipping himself into his bag and tent in July. He's sleeping outside for the month of November.

Verbick isn't crazy. He's philanthropic. His chilly camp out is part of a much larger community-wide event called The Sleep Out 2006. While Verbick's tent will be pitched in his Medina front yard, others will be pitching tents in neighboring cities, including Plymouth, Hamil, Minnetonka Beach, Orono, and more. Representatives from Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners (IOCP) hope the sight of so many pitched tents in such a cold month will draw community attention to the need for more affordable housing and the reality of homelessness in the western suburbs.

Local businesses, family members and friends have pledged donations over the length of Verbick's sleep out. The money Verbick collects will be donated to IOCP, a Wayzata-based charitable organization responsible for the sleep out campaign. IOCP will add Verbick's pledges to the donated funds coming in from across the area. IOCP will use the money to help west metro families stay in their apartments and homes when finances get tight this coming year. The money will also help provide shelter for community members that are homeless.

“I don't mind sacrificing a month in my bed to help keep others in their homes,” said Verbick. “It's great for people to participate in this event, but there's no way anyone who's sleeping out and has a home to go back to in the morning can have any real perspective on what it's like to be homeless. When morning comes, I can go inside and get warm. I can take a hot shower. Someone who really is homeless doesn't have that.”

Homelessness and the availability of affordable housing are bigger issues in the west metro than some might expect. “One of the biggest challenges we face,” said Jill Kohler, development director for IOCP, “is educating our community about housing needs. For the most part, the area we serve, which is Wayzata, Long Lake, Hamil, Medina, Medicine Lake, Minnetonka Beach, Orono, and all but the northeast corner of Plymouth, is seen as an affluent area. But there are pockets within our community, especially in the apartment complexes, where affordability is an issue. The average rent for an apartment in this area is $1,000 a month.”

She added, “Lots of people want to live in our community. People want to live here because they want a safe environment and good schools for their kids. Lots of families move here and start off just fine. Many find jobs in the service industry working as bank tellers or restaurant staff. Over time, though, they might encounter financial problems and then they can't make ends meet.”

“IOCP helps individuals, families, single moms and elderly couples,” Kohler explained, “that come into our offices because they are about to be evicted. We prevent homelessness by offering rent subsidies. We might help out for a couple of months, or just for one.”

In the past year, IOCP assisted 635 area families with rent needs. The organization also assisted 2,325 local families with emergency housing, provided temporary shelter for 128 individuals, and prevented 13 families from losing their homes to foreclosure. While IOCP helps a lot of people, each month, the organization has to turn away roughly 40 families because the allocated emergency housing funds run out.

“The Sleep Out,” said Kohler, “is our catchy way to draw attention to this issue of homelessness, but really what we're trying to do is raise funds so that we can continue to service this community.”

That is why the length of the IOCP sleep out changes. Each year, the organization sets a monetary goal. Participants keep their tents pitched until that goal is reached. In 2004 and 2005, the sleep out lasted 37 nights. This past year, IOCP collected nearly $1.6 million in donations. The monetary goal for The Sleep Out 2006 is $1.7 million.

The remainder of this article can be found in the November-December 2006 issue of Lake Minnetonka Living (formerly Discover the Lake Minnetonka Area) magazine.

Learn more about Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners and the annual Sleep Out at www.iocp.org.


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