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At 20 years, Dream Center still uses radical acceptance – SC Times

Services for people who are homeless looked much different 20 years ago, when the Rev. Michael Laidlaw founded Overcomers International Fellowship, sometimes known as the Dream Center.
Back then, homeless people may have found beds, but not services to get back on their feet.
“So we’ve seen that develop over the past 20 years into a pretty wonderful network of resources,” Laidlaw said.
Back then, Laidlaw started with a drop-in center, where all he had to offer was coffee and some connections to resources.
Today, the OIF has 42 beds on a four-building campus in St. Cloud and 12 beds in a two-building campus in Willmar. The services and housing are for men who are struggling with mental health issues, chemical dependency, traumatic brain injury, learning disabilities and physical disabilities, as well as men recently released from jail or prison.
It’s a place where they can get three meals a day, personal care, medication management, support groups, accountability, transportation to care providers and aftercare programs and job and education coaching. They also network with social workers, probation officers and aftercare providers.
“We can provide a housing service and love on the guys and everything else, but if we don’t network with the community, and with the resources out in the community and we have barriers for them to get into a GED class, … they can’t break the poverty off of their life,” Laidlaw said.
“Our whole point is not to warehouse people, but to move them through and get them back into the community.”
Laidlaw is technically chief executive officer.
“I don’t like that title. … I’m just a caretaker of the poor and the homeless, is what my real title is. And anything above that is a facade. It really is,” he said. “I love the guys. I deeply, deeply love them. I want them to succeed.”
“All of the rejection that they’ve had, you know, we are their extended family. When somebody fails and comes back, we’re going to treat them like the lost son in the Bible, and put a ring on their finger, throw a robe on them and throw a feast,” he said.
That’s what they’re doing Saturday, celebrating 20 years with an event, welcoming back former residents in a sort of family reunion.
Laidlaw has experienced the ups and downs many men experience. He hopes they learn something from each fall.
“I learned this in my own recovery from alcoholism and my own struggle with depression,” he said, who has 25 years of sobriety this year.
What worked for him was being accountable, following a program of action, submitting to what was suggested to him and adding discipline.
Laidlaw’s work evolved to serve a niche: men who might not be able to stay at a traditional shelter because of their violent or criminal history.
“We have a very unique, small population we work with, guys coming out of jails and prisons and mental health civil commits, people that really don’t fit into a normal housing place,” he said.
“We’re providing a very unique service for the region and the community, making our community safer. And holding the men accountable so they can succeed,” he said.
At first, the center was funded completely by donations.
“When we first started out … it was just crazy faith. We had no sustainability, we had no funding,” Laidlaw said. Now, they rely on donations, as well as federal and state funding.
How do they do it? By simply accepting the men.
“The main thing that we do to create community is that we practice radical hospitality. Radical in that definition is going overboard, and hospitality is just treating the stranger like a family member,” Laidlaw said. “So when somebody comes in … We just treat him with total acceptance, total love, make them feel comfortable.”
“We train our staff on acceptance. … To really work with them with God’s grace, accept them right where they’re at, and try to develop a plan of recovery, aftercare programming and re-entry into the community,” he said.
Staff networks with rehab services, felon-friendly landlords, employers, medical services and other programs. While living there, men have access to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, meditation, Bible studies and other groups. There’s even a cognitive thinking class they started to address criminal or addictive thinking.
There have been some surprises along the way, including the addition of area college students to serve clients. Hundreds of students have gotten real-world experience and a cross-cultural experience at the center.
“I want those students to have an experience, to interact with the residents to learn why they ended up here … and some of their significant disabilities and barriers to why they’re still here.”
A St. Cloud State University group provides health lectures, and a group of business majors at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University works with residents on resumes, building interview skills and conducting job searches. They will even help residents write a business plan.
It’s eye-opening for some students.
“They’ve never been around somebody that’s been in prison,” Laidlaw said, or someone with chronic mental illness.
Laidlaw has the students survey the residents about how they got to the Dream Center, what their goals were and what sort of barriers they have in getting there. And that’s a form of radical acceptance.
The guys think: ” ‘Here’s this college person spending this time with me. And I’ve been rejected by my family. I’ve been rejected by my community. I’m a convicted felon, I’ve got Hepatitis C.’
“All of this rejection and failure in their life and here’s this wonderful bright student in their life, asking them questions. How empowering,” he said.
In a good economy, if a man is able to work, he’ll have a job within two weeks, Laidlaw said. Right now, the guys who are capable of working have 100 percent placement in jobs, in places like warehouses, factories and phone banks.
Access to health care is key. The passage of the Affordable Care Act helped significantly, Laidlaw said, but a shortage of psychiatric care is still a challenge.
“Health care is going to reduce recidivism. We’re seeing people getting into treatment program aftercare plans,” he said. “We don’t do untreated mental illness here. We don’t do untreated chemical dependency here. They have to be in a program.”
Ultimately, the goal is to stop men from cycling through the system, which can be more expensive than funding treatment in the first place.
That’s why they address all aspects of a person from housing to health care, finances to addiction.
“So it’s long-term recovery, it isn’t flash in the pan,” Laidlaw said.
The only true success is how they do in the community, when confronted with the dysfunction of their past.
It’s about moving forward. But on Saturday, staff and clients at the Dream Center will pause to take a look back.
Follow Stephanie Dickrell on Twitter @SctimesSteph, call her at 255-8749 or find more stories at www.sctimes.com/sdickrell.
If you go …
What: 20th anniversary celebration of Overcomers International Fellowship, also known as the Dream Center.
When: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday
Where: 529-16th Ave. N, St. Cloud.
For more information or to make a donation, visit www.dreamcenterstcloud.org.
To contribute …
Donate $1 to help the replace the roof on the Dream Center at www.dreamcenterstcloud.org.
The center especially needs volunteer cooks and drivers to take men to appointments.
20 years of radical acceptance
The Dream Center started in 1995 with a drop-in center in a church basement on Fifth Avenue, said the Rev. Michael Laidlaw.
All they had was a coffee pot, some day-old bread and rolls. They offered services for people who were mentally ill, chemically dependent and homeless.
Staff connected people with resources, like shelters, detox and the St. Cloud VA Health Care System. At that point, about a third of the homeless population was Vietnam veterans, Laidlaw estimated.
In 1998, he purchased the old Great Northern Hotel.
“We thought we were in heaven,” he said, because they had 14 beds.
Near the turn of the century, the program had battles with neighbors and the city about running the shelter.
“It stirred up a lot of hate,” Laidlaw said. “But we got past all of that.”
“We had every right to serve the homeless, so that’s what we were going to do,” he said.
In 2001, they bought a building across the street from the old hotel. It was made into a shelter for long-term clients getting their lives together who were more self-sustaining or able to pay their own rent.
The 2003 murder of Dru Sjodin by a Level 3 sex offender prompted more funding for outstate probation housing. The Dream Center got a contract with the Minnesota Department of Corrections covering the cost of five beds. It still has the contract.
In 2004, the organization went from co-ed services to serving only men and bought another building.
Soon after, it dug into helping people with chronic and persistent mental illness and physical disabilities.
For almost two years, it ran an adult foster care. Later, staff opted for group residential status, which allows a lower level of service for mentally or physically disabled clients.


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