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Former Grand Forks Police officer Sue Shirek takes over Rescue Mission

Sue Shirek, the new Executive Director of Northland Rescue Mission, poses for a portrait in Grand Forks on Thursday June 15, 2017. (Joshua Komer / Grand Forks Herald)

Sue Shirek used to patrol the streets of Grand Forks as a police officer. Her new mission is helping those living on them.

From her 26 years with the Grand Forks Police Department, to serving on the Third Street Clinic and Prairie Harvest boards, Shirek has devoted her time to people-focused charities. Her newest role in the community as executive director of the Northlands Rescue Mission, is the type of work she said she has always felt called to do.

"Doing this work gets to the heart of who I am," she said.

Her work with the homeless started with an email.

"A friend of mine sent me an email when I was teaching in El Salvador, and she said 'there's a job you just have to apply for. It's you,' " Shirek said.

That job was as the executive director of the Share and Care Shelter in Crookston, where Shirek spent nearly three years. While she says she enjoyed working in Crookston, Grand Forks has always been home and working at the mission has always been a desire.

"This is home. It's the place where I drove around on midnights keeping the city safe. ... It's the place I go to church and buy groceries. I have a connection to people here, and it's a personal connection."

Since starting at the mission in May, Shirek and her staff have focused in on changes they want to bring to the mission. Shirek says the organization's finances have improved from a year ago and it is well-positioned for the future.

A major change Shirek is working to implement is intensive case management, which helps clients access housing, mental health and other medical care and build social relations to make reintegrating into the community as easy as possible.

Because of her history as a police officer, Shirek says she often comes into contact with people she has arrested or dealt with on the job. However, she said she believes there's more to a person than a criminal record.

"A lot of times in law enforcement you see people at their absolute worst," she said. "But when you see them when they're not in those moments, you see the good human being that's there. And sometimes people just need a chance to believe in themselves."

The mission provides those second chances to its 90 current residents. To stay at the mission, residents must abide by a curfew, arrive sober and help with chores throughout the building, Shirek said.

"It's a person's choice to be here or not be here," she said of the people who don't comply with the rules.

According to Shirek, there's no one path to homelessness. "Causes are varied, extremely varied," she said. "Sometimes it's mental illness. Sometimes it's alcoholism, drug addiction, or a jail sentence or a divorce ... a million and one things. Everybody's story is different."

Shirek said she is motivated in her work with the homeless by her Catholic faith and the rewards she finds in it.

"I find great joy when people really feel like they've changed their lives," she said. "Just to see people getting their humanity back—that's the biggest and best thing ever."

While the mission plays a role as the city's shelter for the homeless, the task is bigger than that institution, Shirek said.

"I don't think that the homeless problem is just the mission's problem. It's a problem that involves everybody in the city, and we can't be the sole fixer."