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Who Am I to Be Homeless?

homeless encampment

The following was first published in our January 2008 issue of The Phoenix Spirit.

Year round, Moxie gets up with the sun. “It’s really the only way to go,” explains the 40-something woman in a grey sweatshirt dappled with gold paint. “I have a lot of stuff to do in the morning, and I just don’t want the cops watching me get out of bed.”

No woman would, of course-and Moxie is especially keen to protect her privacy. Her bed-well, one of her favorites-is an old refrigerator carton shrouded by a swirl of brambles near the scrap yards north of downtown Minneapolis. If the police ever find it, she knows, they’ll tear her hideaway to bits-perhaps even set fire to her heap of blankets and books and cereal boxes.

“Really, that’s what they do,” says Moxie, leaning into the zero-degree temps on her way to find some lunch. “Just ask the boys who live under the bridge. The cops go after their camp with bulldozers. They just don’t get why someone would want to live out here.”

The cops aren’t the only ones. Most folks are mystified to learn that as many as 500 Minnesotans-a small share of the 9,000-plus in the state who qualify as homeless on any given night-seem to prefer sleeping outside. Most rarely bother to approach the network of church shelters and county-run facilities that might take them in.

“You’ll never find me in no damn shelter,” says Little Mike, one of Moxie’s under-the-bridge comrades. “Too many strangers, too much snoring, too little air. It’s the place to go if you wanna catch a rotten cold-sleeping head to head with all those guys. And a lot of ’em are just bleedin’ crazy. A person could get hurt in there.

So Little Mike and a half-dozen or so of his buddies spend their nights tucked under the tangle of bridges within sight of the Basilica-just a quick skip from the million-dollar home of Lowry Hill.  Other clusters of “outsiders” sleep near the scrap yards, in thickets along the Mississippi, along the Midtown Greenway.

Moxie and Little Mike are members of a club known as the “long-term homeless”: Like a good third of the unsheltered, both have gone more than a year without a permanent address-or even a temporary one.

According to the Wilder Research survey of Minnesota’s homeless, nearly all long-term homeless adults struggle with psychiatric illness, chemical dependency or traumatic brain injury. Some have a history of incarceration or state-hospital stays.

Take Moxie for instance. As soon as dawn breaks, she slides from her hidden lair and ducks behind a warehouse for her morning medication: one full can of gold spray paint, inhaled with the help of a paper bag.

If you dare to ask about it, she’ll joke her way around the topic. But the spatters of gold streaked on her face, fingers and front tell the story she won’t: Moxie is a hard-core huffer. Hardly a day goes by that the sassy, sparkly eyed woman doesn’t stick to her standard regimen: one can first thing in the morning, another by mid-afternoon.

Why gold paint? It’s a chemical concern, not a fashion statement: Gold spray paint offers the biggest blast of Moxie’s drug of choice. Its chief ingredient is toluene-an intoxicant that produces euphoria and dampens anxiety.

In another world, Moxie would be able to call on a psychiatrist to manage her mood. Like so many of the residents of Lowry Hill, she might find herself uplifted by an antidepressant or soothed by an anti-anxiety med. As it is, she goes with the gold paint. It’s not perfect, but it helps her make it through the day.

The guys in the under-the-bridge club are far more candid about their chemical use. They drink most nights and some open their first beer for breakfast.

“Sure, I’m an alcoholic,” says Rattler, dressed in a snowmobile suit, gesturing with beer can in hand. “Whaddya expect? This aint’ an easy life, you know. There’s nothin’ to do, nowhere to go. Food you can find, but that’s about it. I don’t see how you could live this kind of life without drinking.”

Rattler’s pal Sullivan, hands in pockets, listens and laughs as he rocks on his heels. “You wanna know how many times I’ve been through treatment?” he asks. “Seven. No, eight. No, hold on. Nine. It’s been nine times! I think.”

Those stories are pretty typical,” says Patrick Wood, policy director for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. “The last time I checked, the average number of times through treatment before a homeless addict achieves sobriety is 11. That’s right. Eleven.”

This is one reason Wood calls the long-term homeless “The Not Ready for Prime Time Players.” He’s only partly joking: “We’re talking about individuals who face so many challenges that even the most innovative programming won’t easily be able to help them. Not that we shouldn’t try, but we don’t have a magic bullet.”

Even so, some tactics are working to shrink the homeless population. The instigator of this trend? Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who launched a quest to end homelessness in the state within 10 years. Now known as Heading Home Minnesota, the program’s chief strategy is expanding the supply of supportive housing, small but comfortable apartments combined with social-support services to lure and keep the homeless happily indoors.

So far, the state has invested tens of millions of dollars in this approach, bringing the supply of supportive-housing units to an all time high of 2,600. The point, says Minnesota Housing Commissioner Tim Marx, is to replace the wasteful habit of “funding a continuous stream of expensive crisis interventions” with a “housing first” approach.

Who woulda thunk it? What homeless people need most, it turns out, is a place to live. It’s not sufficient, Marx grants, but it’s the first step.

And once an apartment-door key is in hand, says Marx, people need intensive support so they can “confront their illnesses, connect with their families, and contribute again as citizens.”

This is more than a pretty theory, insists longtime advocate for the homeless Monica Nilsson. Director of Outreach at St.Stephen’s Human Service in Minneapolis, Nilsson argues that even the Moxies and Little Mikes can be coaxed indoors and she can prove it. With underwriting from Heading Home Minnesota, St.Stephen’s has helped 130 long-term homeless adults move indoors in recent years.

The special struggles of “outsiders,” Nilsson notes, shouldn’t be seen as evidence that they can’t be helped. “Whatever chemical and/or mental health issues people have will likely grow worse while they’re unhoused,” Nilsson says. “Loneliness, boredom, peer pressure, the cold, depression-all contribute to languishing under a bridge.”

Homelessness in Minnesota, says Nilsson, persists for only one reason: “It’s the public’s will.”

The public might change its mind if it considered the numbers. Nilsson offers a few worth considering: “The cost of a night at HCMC: $1,000. A night in a county jail: $211. A night in detox: $180. A night in a homeless shelter: $33.”

And the expense of a night in an apartment, even if the state picks up the whole tab? Given the current rental market, Nilsson says, the nightly cost would be about $20.

“It’s amazing that people don’t get this,” says Wood, the policy guy from the state coalition. “Even if Minnesotans can’t see the homeless as their neighbors, surely the math ought to matter. All the research shows that housing the homeless is the smartest thing we can do.”

“The most expensive response? That’s easy. Do nothing.”


Kate Stanley is a Minneapolis essayist, speechwriter and media consultant. She was an editorial writer at the Star Tribune, where she wrote often about homelessness, mental-health care, law, medicine and global development policy. She can be reached at kate@worldspinners.com.

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