Rosenblum: Event offers a humbling new way to look at homelessness

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 16, 2012 - 8:02 PM

Cathy ten Broeke knows the image many of us call to mind when we hear the word "homeless." It's the man on the street corner holding a sign.

But Ten Broeke's images of the homeless are vast and humbling, like the parents on the edge who, when offered a host of services, choose a professional photograph of their children.

"These are completely average services that most of us take for granted," said Ten Broeke, coordinator of the Minneapolis-Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness.

In December, more than 1,000 volunteers came together to offer those completely average and desperately needed services to nearly 2,000 participants, called "guests," through Project Homeless Connect (PHC).

Feedback made public last week revealed immeasurable gratitude among both volunteers and guests. Ten Broeke calls the event "transformative."

Services, all free, included tooth extractions and flu shots, eye and breast exams, mental health assessments and state IDs. But it's the less obvious services that are the most touching. More than 270 people received a package of pet food.

"Some families will literally stay in their car, instead of a shelter, because they fear for the safety of their pet," Ten Broeke said.

Eighty-three families received a free professional photo. "So many have no photographs of their children," she said. "They wanted it, just to have."

Using the word "guest," instead of participant or client, is intentional. "So much of what we're trying to do is change the way we think about homelessness," Ten Broeke said.

"'Guest' sets the tone for how volunteers should work with people. It's all about hospitality and trying to break down the usual bureaucratic barriers."

It's also about breaking loose from stubborn us-vs.-them assumptions. "For the most part, there's a strong belief that, 'Oh, those folks must have done something to bring this on.' With the economy being the way it is, that's shifted a little bit," she said, "but it's still [believed to be] something that people have done to themselves."

The all-day event, held at the Minneapolis Convention Center, draws 1,800 to 2,500 people twice yearly, including young families, grandparents and veterans.

"Most people picture that person standing on the street corner with a sign," Ten Broeke said. "They don't think about the 6,356 children and youth" identified as homeless by the Minneapolis Public Schools last year.

Equally worrisome to her is the growing number of people on the verge of homelessness, "coming to us as a prevention event.

"Lack of affordable housing is key," she said. "For people who have to leave their homes, there's very little out there for them to move to. Our biggest challenge is finding apartments."

In December, PHC provided more than 1,400 housing connections, including home-search assistance to 846 people and housing information to more than 500.

The event began in 2005 as a free, one-stop shop. "It's an enormously daunting task to find their way to these resources," Ten Broeke said. "Many have small children and no transportation. To bring everybody to one location makes it so much easier for them."

The Convention Center graciously donates the space, she noted.

Volunteers include doctors, nurses, dentists, mental health professionals, vision specialists, hair stylists, school and employment counselors.

PHC is part of a larger strategy to end homelessness in Hennepin County. The event's success has led, for example, to the opening of two year-round opportunity centers built on the same model. One is housed at the Youth Opportunity Center in downtown Minneapolis and run by YouthLink. The other is located at the Adult Opportunity Center in Minneapolis and run by Catholic Charities.

In feedback made public Jan. 11, fully 98 percent of guests reported that the event was well worth their time. "Many were especially thankful for their volunteers," Ten Broeke said.

But nobody was more thankful than the volunteers, including one, who wrote:

"As I looked around, I was reminded once again that many of us are just one crisis away from being in the same situation. Remove the volunteer T-shirts and it would be nearly impossible to tell the guests from the volunteers. The kindness that I witnessed and experienced yesterday filled me with hope, not only that there will be a solution to the problem of homelessness but, also, a belief in the goodness of people and the power that comes when that energy is combined."

The event will be held again May 14 at the Minneapolis Convention Center. For more information, go to www.homeless connectminneapolis.org.

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com • 612-673-7350

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