Photograph by Audree Notoras

John Collins is among the hundreds of local citizens who seek help and shelter at Backstreet Missions, a faith-based social service agency in Bloomington. Collins works at Geno's Cafeteria, a Backstreet kitchen that feeds the hungry.

When the friend John Collins was staying with told him he was moving across the country, Collins was forced to find a new place to live. His answer came from one of many faith-based organizations in town that serve the impoverished, Backstreet Missions.

"My brother stayed here once and told me a little about it," Collins explained. "I went to the Shalom Center, and they mentioned something about it too, so I came out here, and they took me in."

Backstreet Missions is a Christian-based organization dedicated to helping those in need. With a variety of programs and services, the mission has served Bloomington for 13 years.

"The poor will be with us always, and we can just try to do what we can do to help them," said Linda Kelley, director and CEO of Backstreet Missions.


LINKS: "The Other Bloomington"


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The history of Backstreet's beginning is close to Kelley's heart. Her late husband, Gene Kelley, brought the mission to life.

According to Backstreet's Web site, Gene lost his job at a local factory due to his alcohol and drug use. He began work as a semi-truck driver, eventually leading him to a life-changing stop with his driving team in San Diego in the early 1980s.

The team was eating at an outdoor restaurant when a homeless man walked through. Gene claimed the man did not say anything, but they could tell he was hungry. No one offered him food. Seeing this, Gene wanted to help and gave the man his sandwich.

Soon after, a stray dog walked the same path the homeless man had. This time the customers broke off pieces of their food to offer the hungry animal. Gene believed this was an indication that human life did not hold much value anymore.

Kelley claims this experience led Gene to want to help the homeless.

"He came back to work in Bloomington and worked in a factory for 13 years before being laid off again," Linda said. "He still had a place in his heart for the homeless, so we started the first shelter in 1995."

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The mission began with one small house in Spencer and now has a 28-bed men's shelter for clients like Collins, a newly opened 31-bed women's shelter, a food pantry and assistance shop, a thrift store and a soup kitchen.

The house in Spencer only housed eight men, so finding a larger space was a necessary step for Kelley.

"In 2000 we got the building we're in now," Kelly explained. "We had to renovate it for the men's shelter. There were more places in town for women than men, so we were trying to offer more spaces for the men first."


Photograph by Steven Higgs

Backstreet Director Linda Kelley says Backstreet operates shelters for men and women, in addition to providing food and other support services.

In March, the mission opened a new women's shelter. The old shelter only housed four women, but the new one has rooms for mothers and single women.

Each shelter provides different programs for people who stay there.

"Since we are a mission, we are Christian-based, and the people know that coming in," Kelley said.

She explained that anyone staying at Backstreet is required to attend chapel services, but participation during the service is not required. Programs are also optional since they involve intense bible-study classes

For the men, there is a choice of a three-month or yearlong program.

The three-month program is for men who have full-time jobs but need somewhere to stay until they can afford places of their own. The men involved in the 12-month program stay at the mission all day, every day. They take a series of life-skills classes and work around the mission.

Men who do not want to participate in any of the programs can stay for seven days every 30 days.

"This way, they can come in, get some food and shelter and get their laundry done before going back out there," she said.

The women's shelter offers longer stays because it may be harder for those seeking shelter, particularly mothers, to get other housing or childcare right away, Kelley explained. Instead of the seven-day stay, the women can stay for two months. They also have an 18-month program and a few shorter ones like the men's.

"When you're helping someone else, that's when you're truly happiest."
- Linda Kelley, Backstreet Missions

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Backstreet also offers assistance to those who need help obtaining resources other than shelter.

Geno's Cafeteria "soup kitchen," located on 215 Westplex Park, serves free meals five days a week. The food pantry and assistance shop, located at 1928 Arlington Road, provides food, clothing, household and furniture items to those who apply for vouchers from the mission. Last year it helped 654 families receive items they needed for free.

The thrift store, also located at 1928 Arlington Road, offers a low-cost shopping alternative to the community.

Each location is run by a combination of the mission's 17-member staff and volunteers. The people staying at the shelter also help out at each facility.

"Most people want to do something, they just don't know what to do," Kelley said about volunteers. "There has to be opportunities for them to serve and reach out to others. And really, that's what makes people happy. It's not focusing on self, it's focusing on others. When you're helping someone else, that's when you're truly happiest."


Photograph by Steven Higgs

Kelley says clients know that Backstreet is a Christian-based organization and that they must attend chapel services.

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With job losses steadily rising this year, more well-educated people are seeking help from places just like Backstreet Missions.

Kelley said that the average American is only three paychecks away from being homeless and that the middle class is disappearing.

"The middle class is fast-leaving," she explained. "I believe we're going to be like the third-world countries, we're going to have a rich class and a poor class and no middle class."

She attributes this to the greed and selfishness of employers and employees who take their factories and businesses to other countries where labor is cheaper. This is evident in Bloomington, where Collins and thousands of other workers have lost jobs due to corporate reorganizations.

Jobs are being cut in all areas of the work force across the country. According to a June 6 article from CNN.com, the construction industry lost 34,000 jobs, factories cut 26,000, retailers lost 27,000, and professional services lost 39,000 in 2008.

"Since we are a mission, we are Christian-based, and the people know that coming in."
- Linda Kelley

Now, near the end of July, more news articles have reported other job cuts across the country. A July 17 article from CNN.com states there have been 438,000 total job losses so far this year.

Backstreet's men's shelter housed 338 men and served near 21,000 meals at the soup kitchen last year. The largest percentage of men seeking shelter had drug and alcohol problems but there were some who had college education but still lost their jobs and needed assistance.

Kelley refers to the Bible when trying to explain these losses and the poverty in the world.

"Chapter 15, verse 11 of the Old Testament says, 'For the poor shall never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, 'You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your need, and poor in your land,'" Kelley said. "God's telling us the poor are always going to be with us."

Audree Notoras can be reached at anotoras@indiana.edu.