For Twin Cities' homeless, shelter is a game of chance
Wednesday 22 November @ 14:47:18
By STEVE BUTCHER
Monday night is bingo night at Simpson United Methodist Church, at the corner of First Avenue and 28th Street in South Minneapolis. By 6:30 p.m., about half an hour before the event, some 50 men, most garbed in flannel shirts and hoodies, occupy several rows of couches in the basement. At the front of the room, the television is showing “Entertainment Tonight.” The kitchen echoes with the voices of a dozen volunteers hurrying to prepare a hot dinner of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy and pie. At a small table near some offices, Simpson shelter advocate Andy Carlson discusses screening procedures, psych evaluations and treatment programs with several colleagues. Hennepin County social worker Jane Addams talks with employment counselor Lynn Lash. Nearby, Tom Walsh, a member of the Minnesota Volunteer Lawyers’ Network, sorts through files and sets a notary stamp on a desk.
Clearly, this is no ordinary bingo game. The materials are the same—round wooden balls inscribed with a letter and a number—but the men who have congregated here on this cold, damp November evening are homeless, some of an estimated five to six thousand Twin Cities residents who regularly look to charity for their food, clothing and shelter. They have come to Simpson to try to win a prize that could mean the difference between life and death: a bed for the next month.
Simpson is one of a consortium of three South Minneapolis shelters. Along with Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, on Chicago Avenue, and St. Stephens Catholic Church, on Clinton Avenue, Simpson’s mission is to ease the burden on a population that has, in the parlance of its website, “suffered terrible luck.” The consortium has grown into an efficient operation providing its clients with a wide array of services including showers, clothing, telephone calls, pro bono legal assistance, bus passes, medical exams, and job leads.
For those who have found jobs, and whose next goal is permanent housing, the shelters have developed a savings plan that will allow wages to be banked until there is enough for a security deposit.
Andy Carlson, who has worked for Simpson for two years, believes that the savings plan is one of the best of the many available services. It is an important boost to those who might otherwise be unable to achieve stability. “We see an average of eight men leave for permanent housing each month,” he said.
Yet even the best combined efforts of the consortium and the individual men fall victim to an overriding reality: There is not enough affordable housing in the Twin Cities for everyone. “We do the best we can do,” said Carlson, “but this bothers me to no end. Even though we’ve been successful at finding housing for guys, we’re still losing ground.”
Broadly speaking, it is estimated that the City of Minneapolis will have to add approximately 61,000 units to its housing stock by the year 2020 to satisfy all of those wishing to find shelter in the city (Metropolitan Council: “Summary Report: Determining Affordable Housing Needs in the Twin Cities 2011-2020”). Currently, Minneapolis and Hennepin County are able to provide housing for about half of all persons who would like to live there. With an occupancy rate of roughly 98 percent, a desirable two-bedroom unit renting for the fair market amount has a 2 percent chance of being available.
But there are additional factors in play. Most homeless men and women work low-wage jobs. This means that an apartment or house is practically out of reach without additional resources such as welfare or social security. The burden weighs most heavily upon single mothers who often have more than one child to care for. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the average fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Minnesota is $761 ($882 in Minneapolis). “In order to afford this level of rent and utilities without paying more than 30 percent of income on housing,” reads an article on the coalition’s website, “a household must earn $2,538 monthly or $30,458 annually. Assuming a 40-hour work week, 52 weeks per year, this level of income translates into an hourly Housing Wage of $14.64” (National Low Income Housing Coalition: “Out of Reach 2005—Minnesota”). Bad news to a population that often works for less than $10 per hour.
“Everyone is two paychecks away from homelessness,” said Mary Smith. Smith, who declined to provide her real name, lives at Our Saviour’s Housing, and is looking at her last two weeks of shelter eligibility. In her 40s, Smith lost her job when her company was sold. She lived in firetrap apartments, her car, and another shelter before coming to Our Saviour’s. Smith notices the effect she has on people, especially when she arrives for a job interview toting a suitcase. “I have to find somewhere to change; and then it becomes obvious that people are looking at you like you’re trash.” On Nov. 7, an auto accident left her with shoulder and neck injuries, and a stiff and laborious walk. Despite her condition, Smith is matter-of-fact. “There are a lot of situations when things don’t go well,” she said. “You have to trudge on.”
As Simpson shelter advocate Robert Hofmann dips his hand into a bowl of bingo balls, the men on the couches begin to stir. To each number called by Hofmann, a man holding a corresponding number chooses between Simpson, St. Stephen’s and Our Saviour’s. Next to Hofmann, Our Saviour’s Housing director Kristen Brown tallies the totals for each shelter. After the available beds have been closed, Hofmann will fill spots on the waiting list. The whole process takes about 20 minutes. But even with almost 20 beds filled, more than half the men in the room will be picking up their bags and going back out into the early winter darkness.
Professionals who deal with the homeless have noticed a sad and alarming trend. “I’ve seen a lot of the same people over the years,” said Hennepin County social worker Jane Addams, who requested that her real name not be used. “I’m seeing the children of people who went to detox or treatment; my old clients’ kids. Now I’m seeing their grandkids.”
A Twin Cities homeless shelter is likely to house someone who is not just without a permanent roof, but who may also be afflicted with any number of burdens, including drug addiction, mental illness, depression or physical disability. “Half the people on the street suffer from some form of mental illness; everything from depression to full-blown schizophrenia,” said Catholic Charities’ communications director. Leslie Johnson.
For such people an apartment can be both a blessing and a nightmare. Running a household requires a million decisions, ranging from the placing of furniture, to the color of the carpeting, to what goes in the refrigerator.
Utility bills must be paid, garbage and recycling placed by the curb, laundry sorted. Jane Addams recalled clients whose old habits often sabotaged their new digs. “They didn’t know how to maintain a house,” she said. “They slept all the time. I had one fellow who didn’t know when to eat, and didn’t pick up after himself. That’s what happens when you go to so many different shelters, each with a different way of doing things. They are used to being victimized; they don’t know how to advocate for themselves.”
Many shelter residents have a criminal history—a factor that, by itself, will exclude them from consideration by any landlord not otherwise in the slum business. Jeff Barnes (not his real name) is in his late 40s, dressed in clean, pressed slacks, and a checked shirt. As he talks he slumps forward in his chair, one hand constantly rubbing his thinning hair. “With two felonies and a UD [unlawful detainer], I can’t get nowhere to live,” he said. “I lived with family for awhile, then found buildings, cars, Harbor Lights [Salvation Army shelter, located in downtown Minneapolis], tramp camp [Catholic Charities Branch II, located next to Harbor Lights], under bridges, by the river.” Barnes paused, scratched his head, rubbed his chin, then continued. “I can’t work because I don’t have an ID,” he said. “If you got an open container, the police keep your ID. They took two cell phones, all my IDs, my medical care card, my social security card. Then if you don’t have an ID, it’s back to jail.” Another long pause. “Tramp camp treats you like dog doo-doo. I’d like to go some place warm. There’s a city in New Jersey supposed to be the most peaceful place in the country. If I outlive my mother and grandmother, that’s where I’m gonna move.”
For other men, the problem is not so much a criminal history as it is a matter of simple bad luck. Larry O’Neal, a soft-spoken bespectacled man in his mid-40s (and one of the few people who agreed to share his real name and photograph for this story), originally came to Minneapolis from Natchez, Miss., to live with his brother and attend the University of Minnesota. But almost from the start things went haywire. “I couldn’t live with my brother no more, so I had to move,” he said. “I went to a place on South Eighth Street where I had a month-to-month lease. That got to be a bad situation. Then I heard about a place in North Minneapolis, on Elwood Avenue. I heard that somebody was looking to rent out a room. I moved in October. I paid $180 for a 30-day lease. My first day there, this old man walked up to me and threatened to shoot me. When I told the landlord about it, he cussed me out and locked me out, and called me a troublemaker. I called 911. But when the police came they started talking rudely to me, and charged me with disorderly conduct.” O’Neal shook his head. “I’d like to get my money back, but everybody hates my guts. I can’t get in to get my stuff. I can’t touch nothing, I can’t move nothing.”
About 10 minutes after the drawing, a buffet dinner is served. Well after the last person has been served, plenty of turkey and stuffing remain (although the pie has long since disappeared). At one table, a 70ish woman volunteer and a homeless man are engaged in a conversation. The man, wearing a blue jacket with the name “Stan” embroidered on the left breast, has deep wrinkles around his eyes and a wide smile. He and the woman have arrived at conversational nirvana, helped along by the abundant fare and the fact that, for a moment, both have something in common. Most homeless people are cognizant of their status as social pariahs. But tolerance is a shallow river for many. “They resent people doing articles on them,” said Catholic Charities’ Leslie Johnson.
“They do not like being treated like some zoo oddity. They are tired of students coming from the university with their video cameras. They want people to do something for them.” That publicity is one way that something can be done does not impress them. Most people approached for this article wanted nothing to do with it. Not even a good meal could breach the wall. A reporter who sat down across from the homeless man and the volunteer, hoping for an interview, waited for a break in the conversation. When he asked the homeless man if he had time to talk, the man suddenly stopped smiling. For a long time, he stared at the reporter. “No,” he said finally. ||