I was born and raised in St. Paul, and despite having lived in other parts of the metro area at different stages, I have spent most of my life in the capital city. I carved out a successful career in sales and management for 30 years before suddenly becoming homeless in 2010 due to the perfect storm of a bad economy, age discrimination and the erosion of my career field.
Now, being homeless at any age is traumatic. But to be forced to live and sleep in your car when you’re 55 is a real shock to the system. And despite what most people correlate with being homeless, many of us don’t have drug or alcohol problems and are not physically or mentally handicapped.
The quest to provide additional resources for the Dorothy Day Center is admirable and overdue (“Fighting homelessness in a new era,” May 2). But please don’t stop there. For every homeless person who uses those facilities at one time or another, there are many, such as myself, who never did.
My only interaction with the Dorothy Day Center was during my first summer of homelessness, when I created a water donation drive through social media and delivered more than 160 cases of water to their facility. When I walked inside the Dorothy Day warehouse, I was amazed at the volume and scope of the goods that lined the shelves from one end to the other. Many nonprofits have much less to work with and can help the less fortunate only through the small amount of government funding they receive. We need to do a better job of spreading the donations around.
When, after two years of homelessness, I was provided an apartment through a local nonprofit — one year ago this June — it was only because of a federal government program tailored to help the long-term homeless obtain housing. But the nonprofit wasn’t able to offer much of anything else, so I was left to fend for myself. I guess they expect your friends and family to help with things like cellphone airtime, gas money for transportation and other essentials. But if friends and family don’t exist or care, you have no real chance of rebuilding your life and moving forward.
If the community intends to produce real results, it shouldn’t make the mistake of setting a deadline, as Hennepin County and the city of Minneapolis did when they devised the “Heading Home” project to end homelessness. Not only hasn’t it worked, but homelessness has increased, just as it has in St. Paul. Set real, attainable goals that reach far beyond receiving more government funding. Civic and corporate leaders must be involved, but they mustn’t be the only ones with input. Make sure you ask people who know firsthand what it’s like to live on the edge each day, fighting to stay alive.
And, by all means, think outside the box for life-changing solutions. If one nonprofit can get someone a place to live but nothing else, another must be there with money and services that enable that person to find work. Make sure that a homeless person in desperate need of food isn’t turned away from a nearby food shelf simply because he or she doesn’t meet the guidelines of having a home. Develop a system that allows nonprofits and local agencies to interact so certain services and donations can be shared. Create an emergency fund that people who are in danger of losing apartments can draw from to pay a month’s rent so they don’t become homeless in the first place.
And finally, change the public mind-set so there isn’t a stigma to homelessness, because — despite what most people think — homelessness can happen to anyone, and it’s incumbent on all of us as human beings to help end it.
Christopher Jenks lives in St. Paul.