Northland Loaves and Fishes community targets homelessness

“We call ourselves Anarchist Christians,” said Joel Kilgour, member of the Loaves and Fishes community in Duluth. “Our founders believed that the best way to make lasting change is for people to take action and address the needs around them.”

The word anarchist tends to freak people out. For some, it draws up images of flaming Molotov cocktails and armed insurrection.

Rest assured, the Loaves and Fishes community of Duluth is not a threat to anything other than tyranny, oppression and the root causes of societal ills. They are a peace-loving, compassionate group that works hard every day to help the helpless and effect change so that nobody should have to face the harsh winters cold and alone.

The Loaves and Fishes community is part of the international movement called The Catholic Worker, an organization founded in New York during the Great Depression by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. The Catholic Worker Movement, which is not an official arm of the Roman Catholic Church, is all about the shared values of social justice and nonviolence.

The Catholic Worker is committed to feeding the hungry and providing hospitality to those whom society has left behind. Loaves and Fishes provides a similar voice for the down-and-out people of the Northland.

“Each community kind of forms itself, has its own culture and addresses its own issues,” Kilgour said.

Kilgour lives at the Dorothy Day House, one of three houses operated by the Loaves and Fishes community that provides shelter to individuals afflicted by poverty. He has been there off and on as a volunteer since he graduated from high school in 1995. What was supposed to be a short internship has turned into a serious commitment for Kilgour. “They got me,” he said.

Kilgour grew up in Duluth with his working-class family that he said occasionally dipped in and out of poverty.

“I have that personal experience, having parents that had to make tough choices,” he said. “I never bought the right-wing lies that poor people are lazy. I saw how hard my parents worked.”

Even though his parents struggled to get by, they believed education was incredibly important, Kilgour said. So much so, they were able to send Kilgour to Marshall, a private school in Duluth.

It was during the time Kilgour spent at Marshall School that he began to notice something. Coming from a working-class family, he had a different perspective than many of his classmates.

“[At Marshall] most everybody was in a completely different income category than me,” Kilgour said. “I was exposed really early to class privilege, or I should say, smacked in the face by class privilege.”

Observing and acknowledging the concept of inequality and privilege from an early age had a lasting effect on Kilgour. Now, he spends his time helping the under privileged. As a live-in volunteer at the Dorothy Day House, he spends his time doing everything he can for whoever he can.

“There is no regular day,” Kilgour said. “It’s a lot of cleaning dishes and bathrooms, sitting around listening, sometimes listening to the same stories over and over, running up and down the stairs to get people what they need.”

Kilgour believes getting involved in community action and organizing is his specialty. “It’s our responsibility to address the systemic causes of homelessness and poverty,” he said. “That’s the stuff I’m most interested in.”

Most recently, Kilgour, along with his Loaves and Fishes community, has been organizing a project called Save Our Homes. This movement seeks to address the foreclosure crisis that has widely contributed to increasing homelessness.

“We began contacting people who were in foreclosure, asking them if they wanted to work with us and helping them try to negotiate with the banks,” Kilgour said.

The first woman who agreed to be helped had lost her leg in a work accident a few months prior. She was struggling to make payments while she waited for her disability claim, and she was working for her church.

“We did a classic ‘up with the people’ community organizing,” Kilgour said. Those involved in Save Our Homes spent time getting the neighbors on their side, sent petition drives aimed at the banks and even got themselves in the media.

“We learned pretty quickly that the banks are always paying attention,” Kilgour said. “The moment there was an online petition and a story in the Duluth News Tribune, [the bank] contacted us and started negotiating with her.”

Kilgour said they kept up the pressure until they were able to work out a modification on the woman’s loan, which she is currently paying off. Kilgour takes very seriously the issue that he has dedicated his life to fighting: homelessness.

“It’s shocking,” he said. “There are hundreds of people sleeping outside. Many of the chronically homeless – the people with very few options – many who might have mental health or drug problems, are sleeping out on the street. We’re seeing more formerly middle-class people taking their spots in the shelters.”

When asked how he believes people can actually survive an entire winter outside, he said in a somber, serious tone, “I don’t know that they all will. Last winter was pretty mild. If it had been a bad winter, I don’t even know.”

The fight rages on.

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