At 73 years old, Harry and Mary (Jorgensen) Fleegel thought they’d be happily retired, enjoying a quiet life, watching “Wheel of Fortune” and their favorite soap operas. They tried that — for a while — but God had other plans.
“After about six months of sitting around, we just figured there’s got to be something more to life than this,” Harry said.
The Fleegels, who attend St. Paul Parish in St. Cloud where they were married 48 years ago, have always felt a connection with the Franciscan spirit, and they are especially inspired by the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls. Together they became Franciscan Associates, committing to live Gospel values in the spirit of Sts. Francis and Clare.
“The sisters follow the Rule of St. Francis, who gave up everything to serve the poor,” Harry said. “We were just so impressed to see how the sisters, many of them older than us, are continuing to work for social justice, how they are continuing to work for peace, how they are continuing to work for the environment, for the poor in their communities. So we thought we’d give up the soap operas and do something more.”
With a nudge from the Holy Spirit, the couple began volunteering at Place of Hope in St. Cloud, a multi-faceted outreach program that helps those experiencing homelessness and other crises. Mary served as a receptionist while Harry helped with showers, handing out towels and soap.
“I would sit with the next person waiting in line for the other person to get done. So I got to visit with people and get to know them. I’d ask them how they came to be homeless, what have been some of their obstacles in getting out of their situation, and so on. Eventually, I figured out that they could help themselves and even help each other,” Harry said.
That’s when the idea was born for Homeless Helping Homeless — a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization the Fleegels helped the members begin as “an association of homeless and formerly homeless folks and their friends in the St. Cloud area. Our members live under bridges, in the woods, in parking ramps, garages and cars in our community. Some of us who are better off live in shelters, our friend’s places, rooming houses or low-income housing. The rest of us serve as companions, journeying with our friends through their trials,” their mission reads.
The Fleegels began to identify needs of the people experiencing homelessness, including transportation.
“Some of the folks had cars. And some had jobs. But some had jobs that they couldn’t get to, that weren’t on the bus line. So we connected some people who had cars to start giving rides to those who didn’t. We collected donations for gas cards to help people pay for gas,” Harry explained.
They also recruited volunteers from the shelter to help those who were able to secure housing.
“When a person who has been living on the street finally gets an apartment, all the money they have saved up goes to the deposit and first month’s rent. All they have is strapped to their back. They are so excited to finally have a home, but when they get inside, all there is are four walls and a carpet. No bed, no table, no dishes, no towels, nothing,” Harry said.
“We have lots of generous people who donate items to help give them a start. So then we recruited people who were homeless to volunteer to help pick up items and take it to the person who needed it. The only condition was that the person who received the furniture and other items would then sign up to volunteer to help the next person. It gives them a great purpose to life to help one another.”
What Harry and Mary witnessed amazed them.
“I was taught well at Cathedral (High School) and Mary at St. Francis High School that every human person is a child of God and how we treat one another is how I think we are going to be judged,” Harry said. “The whole Gospel is about love. The greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor and that’s what we continued to see, neighbors loving neighbors, despite their situation.”
Then winter came and the Fleegels saw people sleeping in tents and literally freezing to death.
“Two years ago, five people in St. Cloud died outside. We were able to raise enough funds to put people into hotels on the really cold nights,” Harry said. “This is how the Lord is just so amazing. Mary kept saying, ‘Where are we going to get the money for this?’ But the Lord keeps calling us in this direction to help his people. He takes care of the birds and the flowers, like it says in the Bible. Do you think that he is not going to take care of these special people? And the money came.”
And on top of that, COVID-19 hit.
“The shared rides were shut down, the furniture program was shut down. All those experiencing homelessness were in even more desperate situations. Many of the organizations that provided meals or shelter shut down,” Harry recalled.
The Fleegels and many volunteers took to the streets, buying hamburgers at McDonald’s and handing them out to people they encountered.
“Every day we would do this,” Harry said. “We would start with a couple burgers and then someone would see what we were doing and say, ‘I see what you’re doing. Here’s $20.’ It was just like the loaves and the fishes.”
Eventually, the City of St. Cloud received a grant to help those experiencing homelessness during the pandemic and approached the Fleegels to help coordinate the effort.
“At first, we had 20 hotel rooms, and then the state came in with additional funding. We had 75 rooms for 149 people,” he said.
But with that also came the need to feed the people staying in the hotels.
“We had volunteers who would collect food that Place of Hope would prepare and deliver outside people’s doors, twice a day,” he said.
During the pandemic, Harry recalls hearing how some people were disappointed at not being able to go to Mass for a time and receive Communion.
“I looked at them and said, ‘This is communion.’ We are all one body, we all need to help one another. We talk about the social ministry of the Church and sometimes people feel discouraged but they forget our rich history here. Helping people, especially those in need, is not new. We have to impress on this generation that helping the poor, ministering to those in need, is nothing new. We have a Catholic hospital, Catholic high schools, Catholic colleges, Catholic Charities. The social ministry of the Church has always been here. It’s in our roots. This is part of what we, as Catholics believe: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned.”
In November 2020, with the support of the City of St. Cloud, the Fleegels opened Lincoln Center, a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week, no-barrier shelter located on the southeast side of St. Cloud area for those experiencing homelessness.
“There were a lot of people against us,” Harry said. “We are a no-barrier homeless shelter, which means we take everybody. If you’re drunk or high, you can still have a warm place to sleep. Not all shelters are able to do that. We are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so that when people need a place to stay, they can come here. If they need someone to care for them, they can come here. In the middle of the night, when other shelters are closed, they can come here. Then in the morning, we can try to connect them with the resources or social services that they need.”
Occasionally, law enforcement will bring people who need a place to stay to Lincoln Center. The hospital also directs people there who are discharged with no place to go.
“This is such an invigorating, life-giving role to play in the Lord’s work,” Harry said. “It’s just so fulfilling to us. We couldn’t do any of it without all the volunteers, all the donators, the whole community working together to uplift these people who are so desperate. The people we get here have it the worst of the bunch. They’ve been trespassed out of everywhere. They have all kinds of afflictions, emotional and mental and physical issues. That’s what St. Francis was called to do, to care for the most downtrodden. That’s what we feel our call is, to help in whatever way we can to bring dignity and purpose to their lives.”
MOST NEEDED ITEMS:
- Men’s pants, shorts and shirts
- Women’s plus-size clothing
- Juice boxes
- Small, individually wrapped snacks (granola bars, fruit snacks, crackers, cookies, etc.)
- Bottled water
- Contributions toward rent, utilities and staff expenses
PHYSICAL ITEMS MAY BE DROPPED OFF AT:
Lincoln Center, 630 Lincoln Ave. S.E., St. Cloud, MN 56304
MONETARY DONATIONS CAN BE MAILED TO:
Homeless Helping Homeless, P.O. Box 475, St. Cloud, MN 56302
LEARN MORE about Homeless Helping Homeless: www.homelesshelpinghomeless.org.
I have access to some tables and chairs for a new apartment. And men’s large shirts.
There’s a group in the Racine WI area called Feather Your Nest. They collect donations to fully furnish apartments for formerly homeless persons.