Resources limited at Anoka County homeless shelter

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 8, 2010 - 11:33 AM

Anoka County's only homeless shelter, Stepping Stone, is helping people take steps toward independence.

Homelessness was not part of Jeff Van Dale's grand plan. He didn't chose unemployment, never envisioned sleeping under a bridge by the river or selling empty cans to collect enough money for his next drink.

"It's hard staying sober when you're homeless," said Van Dale, 49.

Then, two months ago, Van Dale was directed to Stepping Stone Emergency Housing in Anoka, a nonprofit shelter for homeless adults. Since then, he has stopped drinking. He has begun searching for work. And he's taking classes.

In this modest home near the railroad tracks crossing Ferry Street, Van Dale has rediscovered his self-esteem.

"We've had local drug dealers come through here and they've reformed," said Heather Ries, Stepping Stone's executive director. "When the residents meet, I'll throw out a topic or ask a question. I'll ask them, 'Who's your hero?' Sometimes the answer is standing right next to them."

In many ways, they are the lucky ones. Earlier this year, 1,301 people were categorized as homeless in Anoka County -- a 30 percent increase over the county's 1,004 homeless in 2009. Stepping Stone has only 16 beds.

TPC Rose, a north metro women's organization affiliated with the TPC Twin Cities golf course in Blaine, raised more than $40,000 this year for Stepping Stone. The group planned to present the shelter with a check today.

The money goes toward Stepping Stone's 90-day residential program, aimed at helping residents become self-sufficient and find permanent housing.

Anoka County declared November Homelessness Education month, offering information and presenting an award-winning play on the issue. But the residents at this shelter offer the lessons of hope and determination.

Even the shelter's residents have had misconceptions about the homeless.

"I pictured a shelter as one big room full of bunks," said Van Dale, a father of three whose children live with their mother. "But this place has everything."

Three meals per day and a roof over their heads are vital. But so are bus cards that get residents to the government center in Blaine, where social services are available. There are also Alcoholics Anonymous meetings across the street. And the home's residents learn how to create resumés and are given e-mail addresses.

'The little things'

How did they get here?

J.D. grew up in Minneapolis and then moved to Maryland, where he was earning $21 an hour in a retail management job. When the economy soured, the 43-year-old returned to Minnesota, hoping to find work.

He slept on a friend's couch in Coon Rapids for months, but felt guilty about not contributing anything. Then he found Stepping Stone.

"When I came here, I didn't have a dime," J.D. said. "The people here gave me a bus card. I learned about the work center. It was the little things.

"When I first came, I felt like I was a loser. I felt broken down. But the staff here, they never categorized me. They understood the plight I was under.

"It's hard enough being homeless. I felt I had a big 'H' on my head."

Since arriving at Stepping Stone nearly four months ago, J.D. has quit smoking and is convinced his future is no longer as cloudy as it once was.

"It's all up to me," he said. "I finally get that."

Dean Hanson, 53, also understands. He said he's been incarcerated for drug offenses and has struggled to find work under the tag "convicted felon." He says he lived in a tent on his brother's property in Ham Lake for 10 months, then lived in a chicken coop before coming to Stepping Stone five months ago.

"I know this facility has been helpful," he said of Stepping Stone. "I probably won't know how much until I'm gone."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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