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From ‘bums to princes’

January 6, 2019

KANKAKEE — While one local group is planning a rotation of homeless shelters among churches, another shelter continues to operate, as it has for a decade.

The Gift of God Street Church, 660 N. Fifth Ave., operates year-round. Pastor Ed Kannapel is the driving force behind the shelter, with the help of volunteers.

The number of people staying the night ranges from as few as two to more than 40.

The shelter includes a chapel and a dining room on the first floor. Sleeping quarters are on the second.

During the late morning on a recent day, a few people were in the dining room, some of them volunteers.

One man, the pastor pointed out, has been coming in off and on for years. Joking with the man, Kannapel called him a “resident dumpster,” saying he can eat a lot.

“I almost got skinny once,” the man replied.

The shelter serves both breakfast and dinner for the poor and likely will bring back lunch this winter.

“We try to feed the best we can, giving a full dinner,” the pastor said. “They come in here with their bodies so rundown that we need to give them plenty of nutrients.”

During the day, people at the shelter can either do chores there or leave until evening, Kannapel said. “No loitering” signs are posted outside.

“A lot of the guys want to sleep. We don’t want them hanging out. That’ll bring gangbangers,” the pastor said.

In mid-2017, the Salvation Army closed its men’s and women’s homeless shelters, causing local advocates to scramble for a solution.

A new local group known as Fortitude Community Outreach plans for churches to serve as rotating shelters in Kankakee, Bradley and Bourbonnais. The hope is to have each participating church serve as a shelter for one day per week, with buses taking the homeless to shelters.

Fortitude hopes to start the shelters in early January.

Kannapel said he has seen a small increase in the number of homeless at the shelter since the Salvation Army closed its two. He questions whether a rotating group of shelters will work. He said it might be hard to move people with drug addictions to new places every day.

By his own account, the pastor said he knows firsthand what it’s like to live on the streets. He was homeless after two years in Vietnam and a stint in a mental hospital afterward.

Kannapel was on the road for the next 17 years. At one point, he called a Christian television program, saying he didn’t think Christ wanted a “homeless bum.” The woman who answered the phone said she used to be a prostitute.

“What I’m saying is that if God can save a hooker, he can save you,” the woman told him.

That led Kannapel to Christianity.

At the shelter, he said he tries to get people jobs. He said he typically lets them stay three weeks in the shelter, extending their stays if they’re making progress in bettering themselves.

Even after they get jobs and leave, they often blow their first paychecks on drugs or alcohol, meaning they often return to the shelter.

Many of the people at the shelter have mental illness. Because there are fewer institutions for the mentally ill, he said, such people often end up in one of two places — jail or a homeless shelter.

As for people with mental illness, Kannapel said, “I’m not a psychiatrist, but I know how to handle them.”

The pastor is blunt about what the shelter is up against. The goal, he said, is to turn the people in the shelter from “bums to princes.”

“We pound the Gospel into them,” he said. “They can’t continue to be bums. They have to have responsibility.”

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