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The line of 40 to 50 men wrapped along the side of the church and into the alley as they waited for their chance at a place to sleep -- a lottery for a mat on the floor of a church.
And for some, a place to stay is becoming more and more difficult to come by because shelters throughout the Twin Cities are full -- or more. There's been no let up for more than a year, and many fear the problem is going to get worse before it gets better.
At the men's shelter in Simpson United Methodist Church on Monday night, 75 men hoped a bingo ball with their number would give them a chance at one of the 16 open mattresses at one of the three private shelters in south Minneapolis. A winning number means they have a temporary bed for at least 28 days. Another 45 men will win a spot on a waiting list that could mean a bed for one night.
So Aaron Sprew, 44, waited in line to play the bed lottery.
"It's the first time I've been homeless," he said. Laid off from a job, he's been looking for housing for the past six months. "When you're in a situation like this, you just have to deal with it,'' Sprew said. "You just have to get up every morning and work at it. ... I see every guy here trying. They don't want to be homeless. Sometimes you just got to suck it up."
With jobs more difficult to find, the lines are getting longer at the shelters. Although coming cold weather may put a heavier demand on shelters, Lentz said the over-capacity crowds at shelters is no longer seasonal. This is about the economy, she said.
In September 2005, 4,731 people slept at the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul. In September 2008, that number spiked to 6,298. And this year, the September total increased to 6,651.
"More people are struggling. More people are having a tough time paying the rent and the mortgage," she said. "It likely will be several years before our clients and the people we serve see any improvement. These people were hurting well before the economy fell apart."
They're hurting even more now, she said.
Every night, most of the most homeless people staying at the Dororthy Day Center sleep on floor mats lined up 6 inches apart and placed toe to head, Lentz said.
With capacity crowds at their doorstep, Lentz said shelter and social service providers are planning to meet this week with community and civic leaders in search of "Plan B."
"Everyone needs to be at the table," she said. "Shelters aren't the solution, but the alternative is that people will be dying on the streets."
At People Serving People in Minneapolis, the organization's president and chief executive officer, Jim Minor, said that in the past the increase in the shelter's population had been cyclical, changing with the seasons.
"Now we're just staying at capacity," he said. "We have been since July 2007."
Families also are staying longer, up from about 30 days to more than 40, he said. "They're at roadblocks. There's no affordable housing. There are no jobs."
Inside the Simpson men's shelter, a few men play chess, some read the daily newspaper, another reads a library book. Most sit quietly on couches and on folding chairs as they wait for the bed lottery to begin. Rules are announced, directions are given. And then comes the draw: O69 ... G49... .
The men grab a ticket that gives them a bed and they head to the door.
"This is good," said Curtis Parker, his bed ticket in hand. "Now I don't have to hide under a bridge or find space in one of the other shelters with all the craziness. Now I can concentrate on getting a job."
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788