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When you’re homeless, people don’t want to see you – MN Gov & Lt Gov visit homeless sites by Ann Treacy
July 1, 2019, 4:19 pm
Filed under: Minneapolis, St Paul

Saturday night I toured with Governor Tim Walz, Lt Governor Peggy Flanagan, Monica Nilsson and a small entourage to two small homeless shelters and an encampment site to talk to people experiencing homelessness. It was a listening session, a show and tell, a you-can’t-believe-until-you-see tour.

We are more than our worst moment

We toured Simpson Shelter, a small full-service shelter. Guests gushed about the people who work there. One noted that shelter workers came to visit him in jail. I could see plates made up and left out for specific guests who were coming in late. People sleep in bunks. There are 50 men in one room and 25 women in the other, but there was some air-conditioning. It’s close quarters but a few TVs and lots of couches, which I was told are very comfy. Guests had lots of questions and suggestions.

First question – why do they keep building expensive apartments when we need affordable housing? The quick answer, because developers want to make money. Next, people want to know what is being done to improve affordability of life. Someone suggested better training programs. Another pointed out  the circular nature of subsidized affordable living. Housing is cheaper outside of Minneapolis but Section 8 Housing (rental subsidies), requires tenants to stay in Minneapolis. The other problem is if you live too far, you’ll need time and money for public transportation. Then if you’re on any kind of disability, there’s a balance of how much you can work/earn before you lose access to healthcare. There’s an ecosystem to life and if you get sick, lose a job or a car, change your living arrangement, at this level of living you jeopardize everything.

Many of the people at Simpson work. Some have chemical or mental health issues. But based on the questions, many are suffering from repercussions of decisions made decades ago. They can’t get housing, work or other support because they (or a partner) has a criminal record. One man had been in the armed forces, worked many jobs but also had several felonies. Nearly 60 years of living and his felonies defined him. Guests at Simpson want to know about how to expunge old records, restorative justice that lets everyone heal and redemption.

I just want a shower or to make a cup of coffee on my own before work

Next we went to First Covenant, under the shadow of the US Bank Stadium. People sleep on mattresses. There are services but it doesn’t seem as full service at Simpson. But people prefer First Covenant to the bigger shelters that feel like dorms or prisons or army barracks. They are not as secure or personal as the smaller shelter. (Especially unsafe for women, transgender people and anyone with gender fluidity – but that’s a different post!)

People here have many of the same questions. One woman works at the Mall of America. She’s well dressed but unable to find housing she can afford. She talks about how exhausting it is to worry about a bed. And sharing three bathrooms with so many people is a challenge. She just wants to get up in the morning and have a cup of coffee in her own place before going to work. Another gentleman just wants a place where he can get a shower. He can find food and a place to sleep but he works and would love to have a shower. He suggests a 24-hour shower facility. I can see this has (retired National Guard) Tim Walz thinking.

People have ideas and theories here. They think about their needs and the needs of their community. Some people know their stuff (regulations and red tape); some may be confused or ill-informed but they know the lives they lead are tiring and hard. It was here that someone observed – when you’re homeless people don’t want to see you.

There’s a predatory nature to being on the street

Our final stop was under a bridge. A small quiet place with a dozen or so tents. Monica and I have been here before. The residents keep the place clean so they are quietly allowed to stay for now but they are in the shadow of a few larges businesses so who knows what will happen in the future. It is heartbreaking to see how quickly homelessness turns into a normal way of life. Women especially talked about having to learn how to be homeless, learn where sleep, how to start a fire, where to get clean. Living that close to the edge makes you near-sighted. So when asked to think about what to ask from the Governor, the answer is a port-a-potty or for city workers to empty the public trash. So that daily life can be cleaner, safer, more comfortable.

These people are living too far down Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs to think bigger. Someone observed that there’s a predatory nature to being on the street. It’s not pretty but it happens.

There is a women who is sick. She has seven children. Her family can’t take care of her because they are taking care of her children. Any government money she gets she sends to them. Another woman had her children taken away. She can’t tell the story without tears. She admits to drug use and I have no idea whether her kids should be with her, but it’s clear that she needs them.  We spoke to several women at the campsite (there were men around but only women spoke) and they all mentioned some level of drug use. They all also mentioned some level of sexual violence – abuse too – but really rape. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a woman on the streets.

The story that touched me most was a young woman who looked like someone I would have met in library school – small, blond and dark rim glasses. She was well spoken and very approachable. Her story was tough. She said she was born into poverty. She grew up on the streets. Her mother was a hustler and she had been trafficked as s girl. She told us she was an addict and Monica was quick to point out that while she may be addicted, she was more than an addict. She had been through very tough times. She did say that sometimes the pain was so bad, the high couldn’t reach it. Meth was not strong enough to take her away from her past – a past she was born into.

Post tour I recognized that we had been through a surreal (yet too real) version of Dante’s Inferno. Each stop bleaker than the last. Or seen in reverse order it’s a ascent from hell, the more attention a person experiencing homelessness gets, the more hopeful they become. They go from asking for the most basic of support – a toilet, to dignity – a shower, to help for the future – training for jobs.

We heard from three people who had formerly been homeless and now are not. For one the key was getting sick and tired of being sick and tired and using the resources around him on the day he was ready. For another, it was having a specific outreach worker (Monica) reach out to him on the right day. A common denominator for anyone experiencing  success in moving away from homelessness was a personal connection. Just as we learned people had to learn how to be homeless – and that is likely a one-on-one lesson, people need support learning not to be homeless. That means finding them a safe place. Then it means having someone confirm or deny “rules” you hear on the street – like you can’t get services without an ID and if your ID is stolen, it’s very difficult to replace. (Several people seemed to think that a lost ID was a stopper.) It means having people around you who are making the same healthy decisions you want to make. It means giving people room to progress and opportunity to go from needing support to being support.


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