'Hidden Homeless' Find River of Refuge

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- When you think of the homeless, images of tent cities and people asking passersby on the street for money usually come to mind.

Today's tough economic times have created new population segments known as the working poor and the "hidden homeless."

However, one man and his church are working to restore hope to this growing population.

The Working Poor

Shanta Wallace longs for the day when she can make dinner in her own spacious kitchen. For now, her electric grill shares counter space with the bathroom sink in the cramped motel room in Kansas City that serves as home for the unemployed single mother.

"I came back home thinking that it won't be so rough to find another job, but it's been harder than I thought," Wallace told CBN News.

She admits it is not easy living in the tight quarters. With no income, she is worried that she and her two children will soon be out on the streets.

"I was doing my unemployment, but that ran out. This is the first time I've ever drawn unemployment. I went to an agency. They paid for this week, so we're scraping from week to week," Wallace said.


  • CBN News interviewed a River church member about how the church is helping the hidden homeless. Click here.

Wallace and her two children are a part of the new homeless in America.

Rising unemployment, record foreclosures, and increased utility costs have forced many families out of their own homes and into the homes of relatives and friends.

Now there's a new phenomenon -- the growing number of people living in pay-by-the-week motels.

For example, in South Kansas City, Mo., one school's buses pick up students from at least six different area motels. One of the wealthiest school districts in Kansas City also counted 227 homeless students in January of this year.

Motel manager Grover Clawson told CBN News about the rising number of families coming to stay at his establishment.

"There are families that have lost their homes either through non-payment of rent or through various other circumstances. Then they come here and they, a lot of times, bring children with them," explained Clawson.

Church Gives Food, Hope

Pastor John Wiley of the River Christian Fellowship Church in Raytown, Mo., first learned about the problem three years ago.

"Going down the highway, I saw the bus stop and watched a handful of elementary kids get in a bus from a pay-by-the-week motel. What are children doing living in this environment?, I asked myself. And so I had to find out. I needed to know," Wiley told CBN News.

What Wiley discovered he said was heart breaking.

"They'd gone into the motels thinking it would be two or three weeks that they would be there. We found families that were there three or four years," he explained.


  • See the entire CBN News interview with Pastor John Wiley about how he became involved with the helping the hidden homeless and the working poor. Click here. 

 Wiley's church began reaching out to the families living in motels near their congregation by providing them with hot meals and rent assistance.

Many people living in the motels were grateful for the help.

"I have a job, but I'm part of the working poor and a single father -- so it means a lot to be able to just come and get a meal," Walter Eckenrod, one of the working poor explained.

"They're loving people. They try to do whatever they can to help. We're just like a big family when somebody is hurting. We all hurt," Patty Echelmeyer, who's also a part of the working poor said.

Victoria McAllister was once involved with drugs and lived that motel life. Today, she is a proud mother and lives in her own apartment. She credits River Christian Fellowship for rescuing her.

"It feels good. It feels that the Lord has rescued me from my past and that it's able to be done," she said.

From Hospital to 'River of Refuge'

After three years of working with the families living in motels, Wiley came across a vacant hospital, where the vision to house them with dignity is becoming a reality.

Wiley and his church purchased the 150,000-square foot former Park Lane Hospital, which had sat vacant for 10 years. Today, it is in the process of being converted from a community eyesore into a 66-unit center to house needy working families and assist them with the goal of moving into their own home or apartment.

"I remember when it closed and as I was going down here by the road, I thought to myself, 'you know somebody out to buy that hospital for my families' -- thinking of the families at the Crown Lodge," he told CBN News.

According to Wiley, residents will eat for free and won't be charged rent at the center. In order to live there, families must be employed and enroll in credit and budgeting classes. The money they save will be deposited into an account for a down payment on a new place to live.

"Think about the dignity of leaving our program, having saved their own money. We didn't just give them a handout. We gave them a place of refuge," Wiley explained. "That's why it's called the River of Refuge Dream Center -- a place where they can get healed with dignity and move out with their own money."


  • Come along as Pastor Wiley gives CBN News a tour of the abandoned hospital and how he envisions it as a center to house the hidden homeless.  Click here.

Other Churches Take Part

During the interview with CBN News, Wiley pointed out that he is not tackling this project alone. He said he has a lot of support from others in the community.

For example, the University of Kansas City, Mo., donated an entire dorm full of used furniture.

"I'd just been praying, 'Lord, how will I ever fill an entire hospital with furniture?' Three days later, a phone call came and all the furniture was donated. It's here waiting for future families," Wiley said.

Area churches have also partnered to help the River Church with the center.

"It's the River Church, but it's churches like Kansas City Baptist Church, Raytown Vineyard, Raytown Christian Churches, area churches," Wiley explained.

He encouraged other church leaders across the nation to take notice, because the hidden homeless and working poor aren't unique to Kansas City.

"There are tens of thousands of motels like this all around the country, all around our churches. And I guarantee you that in these motels, these pay-by-the-week motels, every pastor in America will find a family living in a motel, attending your school district, shopping in your grocery stores," Wiley said. "And the federal government classifies them as homeless and they are in despair and they don't want to be there."

"The goal isn't to get them into your church. Just go love them, because it's the right thing to do," he added. "If they come to your church great. Awesome. But go feed them. Clothe them. Do the right thing, because Isaiah 58 mandates that we do it."


  • Pastor Wiley shares how what he's doing to help the poor in his community is just a reflection of what God's prompting the body of Christ to do around the globeClick here. 

Originally aired on July 26, 2010.

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CBN News
Charlene  Aaron

Charlene Aaron

CBN News Reporter

Charlene Aaron serves as a general assignment reporter and helps anchor for the CBN News Channel.  Follow her on Twitter @CharNews and "like" her at Facebook.com/CharleneIsraelCBNNews.