As 20 churchgoers and college students traverse a busy Minneapolis light-rail station handing out hot dogs, blankets and prayers to people who are homeless or just in need of help, each volunteer has their own reasons why they're here.
Josh Harris, who helps lead the weekly night-outreach program at Inner City Christian Ministries (ICCM) Church, had been homeless earlier in life. As he walks the station he takes time to hug and chat with people he knows, listening to their stories.
"Being able to empathize with what some of the folks are going through, and being able to bring faith to everything, it's all love," said Harris, at the E. Lake Street light-rail station.
Organizers for the church's program and other Minnesota homeless outreach programs reported an increase in interest from volunteers since the start of the pandemic and George Floyd's killing in 2020. That increased interest along with new COVID-linked grant funding has allowed many of these programs to grow and fill gaps in service to homeless populations.
More than 200 people attended ICCM's outreach night on Jan. 20. Some were Bethel University students there for the first time as part of a new collaborative effort. Harris and fellow volunteer captain Megan Beasley added the light-rail stop route in September 2020, and have come every Friday since. Chloe Guild, who organizes the Friday night program, said the Jan. 20 crowd was one of the largest she has seen.
A few years ago, Guild said, nighttime volunteers were often just her and a few others. Now it has grown to hundreds each week. She attributes the growth to people feeling a stronger desire to help those struggling the most following the riots after Floyd's murder, and the added challenges of the pandemic.
"After everything that happened, people really wanted to come and serve, and I think it opened peoples' eyes to be like, 'OK, let's serve and go do something about it,'" Guild said . "It's so cool to see the spread and how we are able to impact way more."
It can be difficult work. Some volunteers said they have witnessed people overdosing or fights breaking out during their visit. But for the most part, people are receptive. The volunteers also hand out cards with information about the church's free meals and services.
"Lil Ricky," a 19-year-old who has been homeless and declined to give his full name, encountered the volunteers after his shift at Little Caesar's Pizza, and received blankets and hot chocolate.
"You don't expect this type of love from people; they just came out with real smiles," he said on his way to the light-rail station.
Nonprofits that operate mostly with paid staff also reported notable expansions to service since the pandemic.
Involve MN, which delivers meals to thousands of unsheltered people daily, went from no paid staff pre-pandemic to around 23 now.
The nonprofit was incorporated in 2018 by Grant Snyder, a commander with the Minneapolis Police Department, and his wife, Melanie. Involve MN didn't have a clear focus early on, but the pandemic led Snyder to see the importance of addressing food insecurity. When the pandemic first hit and some free-food providers had to close brick-and-mortar locations, it created a void for people who depended on them for their food regularly.
Involve MN stepped in by going to encampments and elsewhere to distribute bagged meals, and has since made that its focus.
At the end of 2020 the nonprofit got its own commercial kitchen, and now gives out up to 1,500 meals per day in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Before the pandemic, Involve MN was fully volunteer-run, with between 75 and 100 volunteers. Snyder estimates the volunteer base has grown to more than twice that size, and said he thinks the pandemic led to a widespread "awakening" of people wanting to help.
"One of the most common questions now I get from everyone is, 'What can we do to help people out on the street?'" Snyder said.
Some staff-based groups have also worked to expand their nighttime services recently.
Last month, the American Indian Community Development Corp. (AICDC) began an overnight outreach program where two workers take a staff bus to help unhoused people in different areas of Minneapolis. The workers go out six nights a week from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., primarily in south Minneapolis.
They offer shuttle services, and have so far taken people in need to emergency rooms, shelters, warming areas and withdrawal-management services, said Michael Goze, chief executive of AICDC.
The overnight program was needed partly because the Minneapolis Police Department no longer offers a similar service to transport people to services, Goze said.
He noted that Hennepin County is funding the program as part of a one-year test period.
"So far we're very happy with the success," Goze said. "The people on the street have been very willing to engage; we've been able to find some people housing and some opportunities to help themselves."
The workers also offer supplies to deal with the cold such as gloves, hats and coats, and let people come inside the warm bus to talk with the workers. There has been interest in adding the nighttime service to north Minneapolis as well, Goze said.