A number of downtown Jefferson City churches in early 2012 said they weren't able to properly meet the needs of the families in their parishes facing poverty, said Kristen Hilty, director of Common Ground Community Building.
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So they developed an ecumenical ministry supported by First Baptist, First United Methodist, First Christian, First Presbyterian and Grace Episcopal churches and the Central United Church of Christ.
"It was kind of bandied about," Hilty said. "'What if we open up an outreach center where we can send a lot of these requests or the more complicated requests? Hire somebody who kind of knows what they're doing to run it, and field a lot of those requests. And we would all support that.'"
Common Ground became a solution to a problem many churches saw in the area.
"All of those churches still very much support what we do here," said Hilty, who is the wife of the senior pastor at First United Methodist. "We've also had some other support from other churches as well — Memorial Baptist, Wesley United Methodist and Quinn Chapel."
Hilty answered the following questions about Common Ground:
Q. When you say, 'They asked for services,' are you speaking of people in general?
A. "Just people in general off the street. They would get all sorts of requests — gas vouchers, lodging, emergency lodging, food, help with utility bills, help with rent — things like that. The churches felt like they were helping a lot of the same people, too. Of course they wanted to be good stewards of the money. But they also felt like sometimes there were some valid needs."
Q. What is your mission?
A. "We see ourselves addressing the needs of our clients in poverty through innovative and relationship-focused approaches. Whenever we add new services or develop new programs, we are always trying to determine how we can make them relationship-based — improving our relationships with our clients that we serve. We really are looking at different ways to approach poverty that actually work. We're kind of really wanting to move that needle for some people.
"We say our vision is to achieve sustainable freedom from poverty by developing a strong network of ecumenical partners and relationships with community-based services. We find it's helpful to work with agencies throughout the community that are doing similar things and see where we can partner and move forward. Our values are that each person is worthy to be treated with respect. We find that community collaboration is important.
"To put it bluntly, that's kind of what we're looking at here. When we add new programs, that's always a question. It's to build a relationship with the people we served."
Q. How do you determine if the programs work?
A. "For our new program, Families Forward, we are taking specific measures. I'm a social worker by training. I'm trained to evaluate services to see if they do work. When we bring people into our Families Forward program — that's our rapid rehousing program — we take a few basic measures when they come into the program. Like, what is their basic income? What is their current credit score? And then we evaluate them on what we call a self-sufficiency matrix. So we ask them a bunch of questions about how proficient they feel in about 10 indicators — education, housing, jobs, mental health, physical health — things like that. We actually give them a score on that evaluation. And we can compare that beginning score to how they score at the end of the program.
"We can usually see increases on these items. We're also watching that credit score to see how it goes up. Our goal is to get their income to at least three times what their rent is. That's what we call our standard for self-sufficiency for housing. When we bring people into this program, we spend our first major visit with them going over their goals. 'What do you want to work on this year?' Sometimes we make the mistake in social service agencies or charities of telling clients what they need to do. Your program works a lot better when you're focused on what the client wants to do and what their goals are. That's what we've really been working on, is what they want to achieve in that year."
Q. Do you have data concerning poverty in Cole County?
A. "This is from 2015. Cole County had a poverty rate of about 12 percent (12 percent of the population was living at 100 percent of the federal poverty level or below), which actually went down from 2014. Central Missouri Community Action a couple of years ago did a survey of the area and found really severe pockets of poverty in Jefferson City — specifically on the river, close to the Capitol. That is a high-poverty area. The Dulle/Hamilton public assistance residence is there. What I find is that a lot of residents who live there have absolutely no income whatsoever. That would certainly explain why there's that pocket there. You certainly would find these little hot pockets in the community, where poverty is way above what it is for the whole county of Cole, or even for the city of Jefferson."
Q. Why is Common Ground Community Building located at 1015 E. Atchison St.?
A. "It's where the opportunity presented itself. The Old Town Revitalization Company obtained the building around 2010 or 2011. They were looking for an organization that had some interest in doing some community outreach work. They knew they had some Housing and Urban Development funding to stabilize the exterior, but they needed a community partnership to work on the inside and rehabilitate the building — and then stay in it afterward to make it sort of an anchor in the area. They wanted to rehabilitate this whole corridor. You had some Habitat for Humanity clients coming in here that were rehabbing houses. They really wanted to stabilize this corner.
"It just became available to us, and we felt it would fit what we wanted to do. Old Town still technically owns the building, but once our 501(c)(3) comes through, which we're hoping we get by this summer — we filed it back in February — then they plan on passing the building to us."
Q. What is the nonprofit status of Common Ground Community Building?
A. "It is incorporated as a Missouri nonprofit with federal tax-exempt status pending approval of the application."
Q. How did the application for its own nonprofit status come about?
A. "I think this is always an interesting conversation. Because we started as a ministry under the church. First United Methodist Church was our umbrella organization since our foundation in 2012. It's kind of an interesting model — how to start a social service ministry in a community. We operated under their 501(c)(3) for the first five years. We started growing, and we felt like staying in that position limited us in the types of funds that we could pursue and the grants that we could receive as well. With the church's blessing, we decided to pursue our own nonprofit status and separate. It's been a long process. In most ways, it's been a really good way to start because we have a lot of support and financial backing. We found that to really grow and serve the community, we need to branch off on our own."
Q. How do you get funding at this point?
A. "Right now, our funding comes primarily from churches that have pledged financial support. First United Methodist pays for the bulk of the administrative costs — my salary (I'm the only paid employee, and I only work 20 hours a week). They pay my salary and most of the costs of running the building. This year we've got some administrative support pledged from First Baptist Church. All of our program funds come from churches and a few private individuals who support us. While under the church's umbrella, we did receive two community development block grants for bus passes. We haven't gotten those recently."
Q. If somebody wants to donate to Common Ground, how do they do that?
A. "What we're recommending in this period — while we're waiting for our federal tax-exempt status — we are allowing First United Methodist Church to act as our affiliate designee. So someone can donate to First United Methodist Church, designate their donation for Common Ground, and they can get their tax donation letter that way. Organizations and churches can give directly to Common Ground."
Q. Do you do financial reports yet?
A. "Not officially because we haven't operated for a full year. We do have budgets. We have expense reports that we're doing on a monthly basis. As of this year, we will have our own yearly reports to show. If anybody is curious what our spending or budget looks like for donation purposes, we are open to sharing that with them. We won't keep it secret."
Q. Is Common Ground eligible to be a United Way partner?
A. "We are not a United Way partner. You have to be in operation four years before you can be a partner agency. And we were kind of transitioning right as that four-year mark came up. The church received a United Way grant for Fresh Start Market, which I started at the church."
Q. This year, the United Way announced it has $120,000 available for grants. Is there something Common Ground thinks it could do with a little extra revenue?
A. "We're not eligible for those funds. With the transitional year, that would be very complex. We'll wait. We'll get all of our ducks in a row, and next year we should be eligible. They don't take on new partners every year. That opportunity to apply to be a partner agency is not there yet. That's really why we did it, is to open up those funding opportunities. We have other funding sources we've identified as well. Our Rapid Rehousing program — we've been looking at some government-funded grant opportunities. That's our big focus right now."