On a cold December evening in 1962, I was walking home along Nicollet Avenue enjoying the elaborate holiday displays when I saw a man leaning against a store window. His wellworn wool coat was fully buttoned against the cold air and one boot was slit open to accommodate a bandaged foot. He held pencils in one hand and a metal cup in the other. I put a dollar into the cup and accepted a pencil. He spoke softly, something I couldn’t make out. I leaned in and asked, “What was that?” Louder he said, “Thank you; God bless you.”
I smelled alcohol. I glanced at his bandaged foot and bolted. Still fuming when I walked into my apartment, I threw the pencil on a table and cursed myself for being naïve and gullible.
Next day at a private acting session with Selma Toy at MacPhail College where I was a student, I had barely settled into my chair before pouring out my pencil story ending with, “And he probably was just going to use the money to buy more liquor!”
“And why,” Selma asked, “does that upset you so much?”
“Well,” I huffed, “he should be buying food, not alcohol.”
With no hint of condemnation in her voice, she said quietly, “We don’t know; maybe that gentleman needs a drink just to make it to the next day.”
In those few words, Selma taught me more about compassion than 18 years of Catholic upbringing. That evening the pencil became an ornament on my Christmas tree.
Today pencils are gone. Hand-lettered cardboard signs state some combination of “homeless, out of work, hungry, anything helps, God bless.” And they are legal. Jerry Fleischaker of Street Outreach with St. Stephen’s Human Services in Minneapolis says that a shared objective to “not make life miserable for the homeless but to give help” has resulted in rules and protocol recognized by business owners, security personnel and police as well as the homeless. “As long as the person stays in one spot, holds only a sign and does not aggressively speak to or harass people,” he says, “it is legal.”
Validity, however, does not preclude the dissemination of myths: It’s their own fault they’re homeless; they just don’t want to work; giving handouts just encourages them. Lacking facts, we buy into these misrepresentations making it easier to dismiss “those people”.
And who exactly are “those people”? HUD identifies a person as homeless if they live in an emergency shelter, transitional housing (including safe havens), or a place not meant for human habitation such as a car, abandoned building or on the streets. The Homeless Research Institute of the National Alliance to End Homelessness says they are “our neighbors: veterans and families, children and teenagers, elderly people and those with disabilities. Many…live desperate lives on the streets…Without the stability of a home it is difficult… to address the serious problems that caused their homelessness.”
Those “serious problems” are often a combination of factors. Decades of research show the primary reason people become homeless is a lack of stable affordable housing. Other reasons include losing a job; low wages; family, personal or health crisis; fleeing domestic violence; alcohol, drug or gambling addiction; mental disorders; landlord bullying or eviction.
Taking on these issues drives the focus at St. Stephen’s Human Services where they’ve created an informative and useful 105-page Handbook of the Streets – A Resource Guide for Poor and Homeless People (available on their website). In partnership with the zAmya Theater Project, they seek to create dialogue and educate the public. Theater troupe members share personal experiences that bring homelessness out of the fog of abstraction into tangible reality.
One of the troupe members, Cheryl Hare, 38, was born into the Yankton Sioux Tribe in Marty, South Dakota. Until age ten she was shuffled through a series of non-Native foster homes, sometimes abused, separated from family, tribe, language and traditions. Finally allowed to live with her grandmother she learned tribal ways. At age 18, life changed dramatically: “My grandmother died on a Saturday,” she said, “and by Monday I was walking down the road and off the reservation.” Attempts to connect with relatives in various cities failed and she found herself in Minneapolis, homeless and an alcoholic, sobering up occasionally to be allowed into a shelter. In 2011 she put herself into treatment then transitioned to St. Stephen’s Kateri Residence which provides safe and sober housing to American Indian women in recovery. She credits Native disciplines for her ability to stick with recovery and states proudly that “In January 2016 I will be five years sober.” Now in her own apartment, she finds joy in simple things like going to the food shelf because, she says, “I can make my own choices about food.” As a co-creator and performer with zAmya Theater and participant in “A Day In The Life” program at St. Stephen’s, she continues to educate about homelessness.
Another zAmya troupe member (who asked to remain anonymous) spoke of a downward spiral that started at an early age when her mother abandoned the family. A series of tragedies, abuse by a step-brother and a need to “act out” led to a “vicious cycle” of heroin, cocaine and alcohol abuse. While living on a trust account from her father, she took “jobs that were just for pocket money.” When the trust fund dried up, “I went from all my bills being paid to zero money.” She refers to a period living in abandoned condos as “living like animals.” Realizing that “she had to make a life for herself” she completed a residential treatment program in Minnesota only to again find herself homeless. Determined, she saved the money collected while on the streets and got an apartment. As a writer, musician, artist and actress, she contributes to zAmya Theater’s homelessness project.
Holiday season is here and we’ll hear plenty of “There’s no place like home for the holidays.” Whichever holiday we celebrate, most of us have the reasonable expectation of any number of “homey” comforts and conveniences: shelter, warmth, light, running water, music, gifts, food and drink. And at the end of the day, a comfortable bed.
Now, imagine this holiday: You awaken on a piece of cardboard on the frozen ground. You didn’t get much sleep because thermal underwear and a sleeping bag didn’t keep out the sub-zero temperatures. Every cell of your body is cold, stiff and sore but you don’t have so much as an aspirin. You need to relieve yourself; do you find an alley, a doorway, bushes? Do you have toilet paper? How do you wash up or brush your teeth? Restrooms are not available because public buildings are closed for the holiday. No coffee because those shops are closed for the holiday. Someone may be serving free breakfast but you’ll have to walk or take a bus which runs infrequently on holiday schedule. Whatever belongings you have you must take with you. If you were lucky enough to have slept in a shelter on a cot or mat on the floor, you must leave by 7 a.m., weather and holiday notwithstanding; breakfast is not provided. But it’s the holiday and some places serve a special meal for the homeless and poor, if you can get there. Everyone must leave after the meal and you’d like to get to a venue that offers daytime shelter in severe cold; again, how do you get there? When that closes you make your way to an overnight shelter and stand in line hoping for a bed. They are full up and you don’t get one so it’s back to your “home”, your spot somewhere on a small piece of frozen earth or cold abandoned floor, somewhere in the heart of a prosperous metropolitan landscape that somehow doesn’t know you exist.
If this sounds like a fictional dystopia, consider this data from The National Alliance to End Homelessness:
In January 2014, 578,424 people were experiencing homelessness on any given night in the U.S.
Of that number, 216,197 are people in families, and
362,163 are individuals.
About 15 percent of the homeless population (84,291) are considered “chronically homeless”
About 9 percent of the homeless population (49,933) are veterans.
Closer to home, in a January 2015 article on the St. Stephen’s website, Jerry Fleischaker states that “People are living – and dying – out in the cold….On any given evening…in this arctic air, at least 200 to 300 folks suffer this fate in just the greater Minneapolis area.”
So how is it possible that despite billions of dollars being spent on luxury housing, state-of-the-art office complexes, sports stadiums and public art, we are unable to provide basic shelter for people? While it may seem counterintuitive, hard data shows that providing homeless people with permanent supportive housing saves taxpayer money. Research by the National Alliance to End Homelessness concluded: “Hospitalization, medical treatment, incarceration, police intervention, and emergency shelter expenses can add up quickly, making homelessness surprisingly expensive for municipalities and taxpayers.”
Monica Nilsson, Director of Community Engagement at St. Stephen’s, says there is a “lack of public will.” When constituents rally against subsidized housing or complain about lines of people waiting for a meal, officials listen. Because of public will, she says, “Shelters are only overnight. Every morning 700 shelter beds are ‘closed’ and people leave to ride buses, hang out at libraries or malls; some look for work.”
Look for work? how do you even do that? How do you get dressed for an interview? Greg Inman, caseworker at Salvation Army Social Services, wrote in August 2015: “Imagine if you had to live every minute of your life battling crowds of people whose mission was to prevent you from moving forward….that’s what people experiencing homelessness go through.”
Despite the sobering statistics, hundreds of staff and volunteers across the state work doggedly, without recognition, to help people who have been forced into homelessness by a confluence of circumstances. They exemplify the ethics of every culture and religion as articulated in sacred texts, mythologies and folklore: That we all have a responsibility to treat every person with kindness and justice and to protect the innocent and poor.
Ms. Nillson says the greatest service the public can do is “Learn, then become a teacher. Your learning the facts is more of a service than donating clothes or making sandwiches. Would you be willing to have a conversation with us?”
In this holiday season, perhaps more of us can find a way to honor the light of those we usually do not “see”. Do we have the courage to “have a conversation”? Better yet, do we have the courage to listen?
Eleanor Leonard is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.