Jack Heidenreich’s dream of a mobile homeless shelter for parents with kids

It may not look like much from the outside, but inside it sleeps 8-10, even with a bit of style.

It may not look like much from the outside, but inside it sleeps 8-10, even with a bit of style. Jack Heidenreich

Jack Heidenreich is excited. Judging by the speed and cheer with which he speaks, it’s a feeling that appears to come to him with frequency.

He’s recounting a conversation he had with a friend who builds tiny houses that are sent to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The idea of a mobile homeless shelter came up. Heidenreich was struck.

His quest led him to Rochester, where the country rock band JT & the Gunslingers was selling a tour bus. Yes, it needed some work. But it was also perfect. It could sleep 8-10 people in comfort, even with a bit of style. And if for just one night, it could save a family from bedding in a cramped car, from enduring the “scariness or monotony of a shelter.”

Heidenreich used to do street outreach for Lutheran Social Services in Duluth, handing out food, clothes, and band-aids to homeless kids. “I’ve always had a place in my heart for this kind of stuff,” he says. He knew the homeless shelters of the Twin Cities are often filled to capacity. “A lot of people don’t want to stay in the shelters because they’re not always safe.”

They can be particularly uninviting places for parents with children, especially when the misfortunes of life have already delivered a beating. Heidenreich hopes his mobile shelter might serve as a respite.

“Imagine you are homeless right now, on the street with your kids,” writes friend Kimber Somers Duncan on a GoFundMe page set up for the project. “Tonight though, instead of staying in a filled-to-capacity shelter downtown, you are on the bus. The kids are watching a movie, the grown-ups are playing cards. There's popcorn and board games. Best of all, you can make yourself at home and sleep with both eyes closed. You are treated with dignity and respect, and in the morning there's hot breakfast.”

As Heidenreich sees it, the bus wouldn’t troll the streets. It would work with existing shelters to ease the burden. He wants to conspire with churches to use their parking lots overnight, with parishioners cooking breakfast in the morning. The bus is in its final stages of refurbishing. His initial voyage is just a few weeks away.

But he needs volunteers. He also needs help with funding, since “I don’t have any money.”

Heidenreich knows his is a modest project. Still, if he can bring comfort to just a handful of families, victory will nonetheless be his.

“If we have eight people on there a night, that won’t make a dent in the homeless population in Minnesota. But it will make a difference in those people’s lives. It’s not just about numbers. People need some dignity. People need some rest. People need a break.”