Just outside of St. Louis in Maplewood, Mo., Crossroads Presbyterian Fellowship (PCA) and the Maplewood Richmond Heights School District have united to address the issue of homeless teens in their community. The result is Joe’s Place, a home where a few middle school and high school boys can live during the school year, enabling them to finish school without the trauma of homelessness. The project received nationwide attention because of the school district’s decision to put forth resources to address a social need.
The idea was birthed out of a friendship between Maplewood Richmond Heights (MRH) superintendent, Dr. Linda Henke and Andrew Vander Maas, senior pastor of Crossroads. “When I moved into the community eight years ago to plant a church,” explains Vander Maas, “I made a point of getting to know community leaders. One of those people was Dr. Henke. I used to go to her office and ask how I could pray.” One day, in response to that question, Henke slammed her fist down on the desk and exclaimed, “Andrew, we’ve got to do something about these homeless kids!”
According to Vander Maas, Henke was increasingly frustrated with the reality that homeless kids in the district weren’t receiving a proper education. She raised the question: “How can we educate these kids when they don’t know where they’re sleeping at night?” Henke’s concern became his own, and Vander Maas knew he had to do something. “I thought, ‘Why can’t we get a Covenant Seminary couple to be house parents Sunday through Thursday and get a house where these kids can live?’” With that, Joe’s Place was born.
A School District Steps Up
The MRH School District purchased the home and maintains its upkeep. The district funding is in accordance with the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which states that schools must provide services for homeless students. The act does not stipulate the nature of the services, leaving that to the discretion of individual districts. A nonprofit organization, Joe’s Place, helps manage the home and acts as a funnel for grants and private donations.
Dan and Alyssa Reeve, members of Crossroads, were intrigued and signed on as house parents when Joe’s Place opened in 2006. Dan is a graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary and a deacon at Crossroads. He also teaches at MRH Middle School. The couple has two small children who live in the home with the boys.
Here’s how it works: Homeless boys are identified through the school system, usually by a social worker who becomes aware of a situation and makes a recommendation to Joe’s Place staff. Joe’s Place houses up to five boys at a time and does not permit residents who are drug users or have criminal records. Additionally, habitants must abide by house rules or face possible eviction.
The teens who live here become homeless for various reasons. “Sometimes it’s because they aren’t safe at home or because their homes are overcrowded,” Vander Maas explains. “In some cases, parents get evicted from their homes and are forced to move out of the district in their sons’ senior year. Joe’s Place allows the boys to stay in town and finish school with their friends.”
When Vander Maas and the Reeves refer to Joe’s Place as a home, they don’t use the word lightly. It’s important to everyone involved that Joe’s Place provide a loving, supportive home environment—not simply a place to sleep and get a warm meal. The Reeves simply live life with the boys, while also encouraging them to stay connected with their families. The boys live in the house during the school year and with their parents or elsewhere during the summer.
“For some of these kids it’s like coming into a different world, speaking a different language, even experiencing a different way of eating,” Alyssa Reeve says, explaining that the boys are often not accustomed to sharing homecooked meals around a table and find many of the family’s lifestyle habits unusual. “One of the boys once asked Dan why he never sleeps on the couch, and why does he always stay in the room with me?” Alyssa shares. “It’s an opportunity for us show them what it means to have a healthy marriage.
“We’ve had amazing relationships with the kids,” she continues. “And we didn’t’ even think about the tremendous impact it would have on our children. Our kids are growing up seeing different races and experiencing different types of families.” The boys also benefit from their interaction with the Reeves’ children, playing with them and acting as big brothers.
A Community Comes Together
The Maplewood community embraced Joe’s Place, which has proven to be a key element in the home’s success. “High school age males are usually seen as a threat, not people to invest in,” says Vander Maas. “But we’ve seen our community rise to the challenge. We’ve been able to emphasize that every human life is valuable. This doesn’t just help the boys, it helps the whole community.”
In 2009 the church and community came together to celebrate as three of the boys living at Joe’s Place graduated from high school. All three have gone on to college with either the aid of scholarships or help provided through the generosity of the community. Although Joe’s Place is not in a position to support the boys through college, everyone agrees that the opportunities afforded them are greater as a result of living in the home. “I’m not sure if these boys would have even graduated high school if they hadn’t come to live here,” says Alyssa.
Filmmaker and Crossroads member Matt Seilback recently spent a year filming a documentary about Joe’s Place. The film showcases life in the home for four boys, and follows the three oldest through their senior year and subsequent high school graduation.
To learn more about Joe’s Place, visit http://www.joesplacestl.org/contact.html.