How are homelessness and small business support connected? Ask this hyper-local organization

Before moving to Fort Wayne about two and a half years ago, Rev. Joshua Gale worked with various nonprofits in Gary, Ind.; Philadelphia, Penn.; the slums of Lima, Peru; and most recently, Chicago, Ill.

He often worked in administrative roles, helping organizations accomplish goals in ways that are more affordable, better, and faster. Just Neighbor's executive director Joshua Gale

Today, Gale is Executive Director of Just Neighbors Interfaith Homeless Network in Fort Wayne and Chairman of the region's Planning Council on Homelessness. But if you ask him what makes services for the city’s homeless populations effective, he’ll tell you the answer starts with a deeper discussion of what homelessness is.

“It’s not an economic issue, and it doesn’t come down to resources,” Gale says. “So the idea of using housing or money to solve a problem that was never about housing or money to begin with has only made homelessness worse over the years.”

Instead, Gale believes the challenge of homelessness in cities comes down to a more fundamental issue: A lack of connection.

“It’s a profound disconnection from one another,” he says. “Poverty is not a financial issue; it’s measured in a lack of overall justice and a lack of connection to the world around us.”

While Gale graduated from Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne and has worked for churches in the past, he doesn’t see this lack of connection being solved by religion alone.

“If you’re worried about what you’re going to eat that day, it doesn’t make sense to listen to a Bible study,” he says. “It cheapens people, and it makes them feel like they’re a commodity, a seat in a pew.”

Instead, he sees a critical lack of connection in society being bridged by communities treating low income and homeless residents as humans first and foremost, meeting their basic needs to help them survive, and rethinking inequitable, systemic challenges at the root of poverty and displacement.

“Our traditional ways of doing things aren’t working and aren’t sustainable anymore,” Gale says. “We have to change the conversation.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic mounts economic and housing challenges onto already overburdened organizations providing support, the time for change is nigh. Thanks to its foundation of collaborative thinking and funding from the CARES Act, Just Neighbors has been able to start being the change it wants to see in Fort Wayne.

For the past few years, the organization, which offers a physical shelter for homeless residents, has pursued its mission to unite Fort Wayne’s religious congregations, community volunteers, and agencies to make the most efficient use of resources—whether it’s housing, meals, or advocacy. It’s this collaborative mindset that led the organization to support a new project in Fort Wayne that’s taking connectivity to the streets.

Along with displacing hundreds of residents from their homes and putting a financial strain on families, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the nation’s small businesses and local restaurants. On Dec. 2, a young and beloved food venture in Fort Wayne, Bird + Cleaver, announced its permanent closure due to the pressures of the pandemic.

Along with shuttering its brick-and-mortar location on Wells Street, Bird + Cleaver listed its food truck for sale, which caught the attention of Gale and Lexie Fretz, who runs a separate, voluntary street team organization for the homeless, Common Ground Outreach.

Together, Gale and Fretz developed the concept of Just Neighbors using some of its CARES Act funding to purchase the food truck for Common Ground’s work, delivering meals to homeless populations. Since the pandemic began, health restrictions have made Common Ground’s buffet style of serving no longer feasible and forced them to adapt to a carry-out model, which could be better serviced by a food truck.

Gale says he formerly considered the idea of using a truck or trailer to serve homeless residents in Philadelphia, but it never came to fruition, so he was excited to jump on the opportunity in Fort Wayne.

“Having Just Neighbors purchase this food truck for Common Ground Outreach was a great opportunity for us to expand our work and meet more needs without adding any more services to our work,” Gale says. “We’re asking the question: How can existing street teams already serving the homeless use this truck for the betterment of the people they’re serving?”

Gale says that while many great organizations and resources exist for homeless residents in Fort Wayne, something that’s lacking is a level of trust between those serving and those being served.

“If street teams can be out there with something like this truck, they can be out gaining trust and connecting people to the resources that exist,” he says.

While Gale sees more need for collaboration in Fort Wayne’s nonprofit sector, he also foresees a painful 18 months ahead as organizations and small businesses facing financial pressures of the pandemic are forced to close, downsize, or merge.

“My mentality is hyper-local,” he says. “As much as we can do locally, the better.”

As a result, Just Neighbors has also been using its CARES Act funding to do what it can to support local restaurants, such as purchasing the meals it serves at its shelter from local establishments like Klemm’s Café.

While the former Bird + Cleaver food truck will be managed separately by Common Ground Outreach, Gale sees potential for it to support local restaurants in different ways and inspire collaborations in Fort Wayne, too.

“I think a restaurant partnership would be cool,” he says. “If we provide the food for the truck, local restaurant staff could bring their knowledge and expertise.”

Ultimately, it’s about creating the types of connections that prevent poverty, homelessness, and displacement in communities before it happens.

“These are the types of projects that benefit us locally—more broadly than in the homeless population alone,” Gale says. “We’d hate to see more small businesses close, which are a big part of our local economy in ways that franchises aren’t.”

Get involved

If you’re interested in learning more about Just Neighbors, Common Ground Outreach, or a food truck partnership, contact Joshua Gale at [email protected] or at 260-797-8826.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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