River of Refuge – Kansas City Star

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By LEE HILL KAVANAUGH

The Kansas City Star – July 6th 2011

QeFBH.St.81Most of the stained and musty hospital carpets are gone. Cool air-conditioning purrs, blowing softly over bare concrete, thanks to a donated cooling tower.

The spray-painted graffiti is gone, too.

“I texturized these walls myself,” says Pastor John Wiley, a man who believes in hands-on ministry.

Literally.

He spent hours rolling the walls with creamy-white paint, watching all those tiny dimples wash away the ugliness, purging the dim like fresh snow.

It’s a good metaphor for a place offering hope to the hopeless, he says with a grin.

The River of Refuge, Dream Center, has begun its metamorphosis from abandoned hospital on Raytown Road to temporary lodging for the homeless. Its mission: to help the poor learn the skills they need to never be homeless again.

ALLISON LONG | Kansas City Star
Katherine Black (left), her husband, Timmy Black (right), and volunteer Benjamin Edenfield moved
furniture into her office last month that will house Virtuous Women Outreach, a non-profit at the
River of Refuge in the old Park Lane Hospital in Kansas City. River of Refuge is a non-profit group
which hopes to transition homeless families who have jobs from high-rent motels and shelters into
more permanent housing.

But it’s happening … very … slowly.

“I thought we’d have our first family in here by now,” said Wiley, who gets calls every day from families seeking help. “The need is even greater than it was two years ago.”

That was when the idea first burst into his imagination. During a commute, Wiley routinely drove past the old Park Lane Hospital at 5151 Raytown Road in east Kansas City. Like always, his eyes glanced at the weedy parking lot and the broken windows in the old building, rising like a forlorn urban island.

He was on his way to feed the homeless at a Raytown hotel. Months earlier, he’d watched a school bus drop more than a dozen children there. Astonished, he learned that they were part of the Raytown School District’s hidden homeless: people sleeping on beds but not in places of their own.

Many are families facing a financial crisis who, often in haste, cram themselves and their belongings into a week-by-week hotel room. Always with the belief it would be temporary.

But, as many discover too late, the arrangement becomes a trap. The bills mount, whether from medical costs, car repairs or bad choices that spiral the families downward.

And, after they’ve paid $800 a month for the room, they have little extra cash for deposits on a rental, which usually requires both a first and last month’s rent.

When poverty grinds people like this, their choices are few: Stay in the hotel; sleep in the car or on a relative’s couch, or split the family up by gender to sleep in a homeless shelter.

Wiley, a former city councilman in Raytown, preaches and counsels families with many of these same problems who attend his church, The River. The 49-year-old pastor believes God wants him to fix whatever is placed before him.

Even a societal problem that seems massive.

The idea came on fast: Why not convert the old hospital and its many rooms into a home for the poor?

He prayed and prayed and prayed. Sought wisdom from others. Was warned about the difficulties, and tried to find the right experts.
He envisioned the River of Refuge as a temporary home for the poorest families, a safe place where they could save money, learn budgeting skills, build their self-esteem and find a way back to normal.

It would be a refuge from their bad choices, too.

He wanted it to be a place that would welcome people who are suffering, whether from unemployment, medical bills, forfeitures or depression. There would be day care for them. Counseling, too.

And no one would have religion forced on them.

The idea has grown deep within his church and other non-profit communities. Some non-profits, including Habitat for Humanity, have asked to collaborate with the River of Refuge.

Non-profits are also moving into the finished areas of the building, paying nominal rent. And even the buildings’ owners have showed their kindness.
In 2009, they gave Wiley and the newly formed board of directors a two-year deadline to raise $1 million, or the plan would stop.

The River of Refuge raised $60,000 the first month. The project was featured in newspaper stories and television accounts, even on The 700 Club International, which donated some $40,000.

But that was still short of a million dollars.

A few months ago, the hospital owners shrugged off the time pressure. Make a monthly payment, pay whatever you can, they told the group. Better for the hospital to be renovated than to sit idle in brokenness.

No one foresaw the current dismal economy, and the corresponding extreme need from the poor. “They’re happy with our plans,” Wiley said.

Assistance has come from the community, too. Donations have arrived from local colleges that gave Wiley 50 twin beds and college dorm desks. Other gifts include older model telephones and slightly used carpets.

Church youth groups arrive as well, donating their time to urban mission work. Members of a Dallas group signed their names on a steel support beam.

Area Christians with expertise in construction and design have called Wiley, too.

The River of Refuge board of directors now includes an architect who redrew the plans for the hospital tower to eventually create 68 family living units. Construction is under way now to remodel the office building into 15 three-bedroom units on the first and second floors on the north and south wings, with room for another dozen offices for non-profits on the other wing.

The first non-profit agency to move in was the Missouri Baptist Children’s Home. Another placed a sign on its door: Girls Leading Our World.
At a later time, when more money is raised, construction will begin on the hospital tower. Then, the three-bedroom apartments will be converted easily into more office space for non-profits that will work with the families.

“We want this place to be a one-stop shop for the families,” Wiley said.

The idea is to graduate successful families from the River of Refuge, and help them move into a reconditioned house with no down payment and a zero-interest loan, “like the Habitat for Humanity business model,” he says.

“I’m still encouraged, even though this is taking way longer than I thought. We have the infrastructure in place. The sewer lines, the air-conditioning and heating ducts, the electricity. We need to raise the funds for studs and Sheetrock.”

Craig White has taken on the job as chief operating officer for the River of Refuge. His enthusiasm for the project spills into his voice. There are 12,000 vacant homes across the metro, he says. Homes just waiting for families.

Grants are available, and with volunteer labor, White knows the dream is more than just an idea. He sees the possibilities.

“Our mission statement spells out what it is we hope to do,” he said: “To break the cycle of homelessness and restore dignity to individuals and families by providing transitional housing, education and permanent housing.”

Families will sign a contract to stay drug- and alcohol-free, he adds, or else they will have to leave.
“We want to give them a hand up, not a hand out, like the old saying goes.”

White says the most eye-opening moment for him was the recent count for homeless children in Missouri, on the Kansas City metro side.

The number from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education — for school districts including Raytown, Belton, Liberty, Independence, Grandview, Hickman Mills, North Kansas City, Kansas City and Center — was 2,973.

“And that’s not even counting their families, too,” he said. “We have to try and do something.”

To reach Lee Hill Kavanaugh, call 816-234-4420 or send email to lkavanaugh@kcstar.com.

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