Maxine Tucker doesn't know it, but she's part of a Minnesota experiment to halt chronic homelessness that is getting national attention.
After five years of sleeping on park benches, in homeless shelters and worse, Tucker volunteered for an experiment that moved her swiftly off the streets and into an apartment. It then set forth to unravel the long chain of tragedies that landed her in the streets.
The process takes years, and can be surprising. If people can't hack sleeping in a real bed? Not a problem, the floor is fine. Still need a stiff drink? OK, but try to put a cap on it. Itching to head back under that bridge for awhile? Just come back.
"The idea was, if we can show that this works for the most difficult homeless people, it can work for anyone,'' said Julie Grothe, a supervisor at the Guild Inc. in St. Paul, one of several dozen nonprofit groups across the state using the strategy.
The model is due to get national attention in the months ahead, said Grothe, because the woman who oversaw its expansion in Minnesota has been hired by the Obama administration to help draft the National Strategic Plan to End Homelessness.
Jennifer Ho managed the program's expansion from Ramsey and Blue Earth counties to 32 Minnesota counties over the past decade. In Washington, she said, her job will be to evaluate homeless strategies and policies that make sense nationally.
"I'm excited about taking what we learned in Minnesota and bringing it the next level,'' said Ho, who this month became a deputy director at the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness,
Variations of this "supportive housing'' model exist here and in some other states, said Laura Kadwell, Minnesota director for Ending Long-Term Homelessness. What's unusual about this one is that it sticks with clients for as long as needed, and lets them live in different locations as opposed to one building.
"I don't laugh about the phrase ending homelessness,'' said Ho, "because this work has made me realize it is possible.''
Learning from the challenges
On any given night, more than 4,000 long-term homeless people are on the streets and in shelters in Minnesota, Kadwell said.
Grothe said she's learned a lot about the folks she's visited in caves, abandoned boats, camps under bridges and homeless shelters. For starters, if somebody lands a warm place to sleep, they are likely to have visitors.
"We learned never to put people in garden-level apartments,'' she said with a smile. "Otherwise all night, people are coming in through the window.''
She learned that many suffer from undiagnosed traumatic brain injury, dysfunctional families, alcohol or drug addictions and domestic violence.
"A lot of them were leery of us at first,'' Grothe said. "Our job was to engage them, give them housing, and see what happened.''
Participants don't have to sign up for any services, she said. But help is available from a "mobile team'' that includes a nurse, child specialist and housing expert.
Not everyone accepts the comforts of a typical home.
"We have one guy who only sleeps in a kitchen chair,'' said Grothe.
Such long-term homeless people cost society about $14,000 a year for single adults, $4,500 for parents and $3,600 for children, according to an evaluation of the project by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Giving them a home and services costs about the same, the evaluation said. But instead of spending the money on the revolving door of detox centers, emergency rooms and foster care, it is used to stabilize people and their families.
Funding for housing, health care and other services comes from state and federal government programs, said Ho. Money to work directly with clients comes from a $5 million-a-year homeless assistance fund created in Minnesota in 2005.
How it works
Unlike some chronic homeless, Tucker desperately wanted a home. The St. Paul native said she had a relatively stable life until she was about 30, working at a health clinic and maintaining an apartment.
But marriage to an abusive husband flipped her world upside down. Landlords stopped renting to the disruptive couple, and she was at the mercy of anyone who would let her stay with them. She sobs when she recalls the degradation she endured, especially because her two children were often with her.
Tucker hit the streets about 10 years ago, sleeping in shelters, parks, hospital lobbies and heated bathrooms. Her children moved in with relatives. Alcohol became her companion.
She learned about the nonprofit Hearth Connection at a homeless shelter in 2004, as the experiment was starting. She eagerly accepted what it offered. An apartment. A Minnesota ID card. A monthly disability stipend. Doctors. Chemical dependency treatment.
But like many in the program, her balloon burst several months later. A family friend crashing at her apartment tried to sell drugs to the landlord. Tucker was evicted.
Only after she completed a class on tenants' responsibilities did Grothe give Tucker another chance at an apartment. Four rehab programs later, Tucker has been sober for the past two years. Her son and daughter have lived with her since then.
"My daughter always says, 'I got my momma back,''' she said proudly.
This week, nurse Beth Allen visited Tucker at her cozy St. Paul home. Sitting on the couch, they reviewed her next set of goals -- improving her health, getting a drivers license, finding a job.
"Without this, I'd probably be dead,'' said Tucker.
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511