Among the reasons to fight homelessness are these: 1) It's bad for business, and 2) People who sleep on the street are in need -- and they are our neighbors. A brother and sister, coming at the issue with different perspectives but a common goal, tell their story.
Welsh Companies has a commercial property for sale in an ideal setting. It stands in the shadow of the new Twins stadium, with outstanding accessibility to downtown Minneapolis and the freeway system. The buildings are available for occupancy today.
The problem is that the only people who have taken advantage of the property's convenient location, downtown views and immediate availability are homeless. Both of us wish they weren't there.
In the fight against homelessness, both of us want to win -- but for different reasons.
You can imagine the challenge in trying to conduct a site visit with a potential buyer and having someone -- or more than one someone -- laid out in the entry of the building. Yes, the police could be called, over and over, but we have a brother who's a cop, and his time is valuable. Moreover, ticketing a homeless person only makes it harder to find housing for that person later on.
But what are the options for a businessman who needs a presentable site to offer buyers?
Until recently, there weren't any. Ironically, the solution came from sister to brother.
With support from the state Department of Public Safety and the city of Minneapolis, Monica became director of Street Outreach for St. Stephen's Human Services and is charged with decreasing street homelessness, panhandling and police time spent on homelessness.
Monica: In St. Stephen's new Street Outreach program, modeled on efforts in Philadelphia and New York City, our team works to house people sleeping outside and address community livability issues. We also try to educate the public and policymakers about what it will take to end homelessness.
Somehow, in the 30 years since people began arriving en masse at church shelters and county agencies, we've gone from believing that homelessness can't last to believing that homelessness won't end. The solutions we've tried over three decades have not worked. Opening shelters, soup kitchens, giving to panhandlers -- these were supposed to be temporary remedies, not an institutionalized policy on how to help our poorest neighbors.
And how do those neighbors live?
Greg has been sleeping in a porta-potty in a metro park. Karen, pregnant, was sleeping in her car with her two kids in a "rich" neighborhood outside Minneapolis because she felt safer near big houses. A counselor at the local college called to say he found out one of his students was sleeping each night in a chair, sitting up. Mary, a mother from an affluent suburb, lives in her car while her mental illness goes untreated. Then there are the guys near my brother's buildings -- the panhandlers and town drunks. For each of these folks, this was their housing in winter. In Minnesota.
One of the panhandlers is John. John has grown obese on the food that people hand him on the corner each day. I know the gesture comes from the goodness of the hearts of passersby, but John is still homeless. And sandwiches and cans of pop don't help the open sores on his battered body where maggots have taken up residence. Mary, another panhandler, was successful because she was pregnant. Unfortunately, well-meaning people handed her enough money to keep her heroin addiction alive through her pregnancy.
My brother understands that finding housing for people whose income ranges from $0 to $700 a month is an almost impossible math to make work. There are two options: increased income or a rent subsidy. In some cases -- the stories of the 43 people we placed in housing since our program's beginning -- we can make it work. In others, we need the will of our community backing us. But, like so many social services in these tough economic times, programs for the homeless are about to go under the axe. Unfortunately, the recession is only increasing the number of people without homes.
I want my brother to do well in his work. I also need his help, as I need the help of every person who feels discomfort, shame, anger or especially the impulse to help when they see a panhandler or other homeless person.
We also need a few minutes of your time: Call your elected officials and ask them to preserve funding for the poorest among us. One might hope that they will just die or go away. The reality is the situation will only be more expensive when unaddressed.
People do not choose to be homeless. St. Stephen's, and every other social service agency, get calls all day long from individuals and families asking for help coming in from the cold. If those of us with jobs and homes are hurting and scared, imagine what an economic downturn means for someone with little or nothing. We need financial support for our programs. Not change tossed to people in pity, but real change in our community. Change that says seeing people live like this is intolerable.
As we worked with men and women sleeping in the back of parked tractor trailers, they spoke of being afraid each night that someone would set fire inside the doors and lock them in. We have people not only coming out of the woodwork; they want to come out of the woods, literally -- and few places like the smell of bonfire on your clothes when you're interviewing for an apartment. So we work to meet their most basic needs and then prepare people for housing if the money works.
Kevin came to us after a week at a big shelter downtown. "I can't stay there, it's too scary," he reported. I asked where he was before that. "Stillwater prison. They drove me to the shelter when I got out."
The veterans sleeping outside tell me that the warrior ethos demands no soldier be left behind. We find joy each week when we can say that one is now thawing out in his new apartment.
It's a bit different for the homeless youth we encounter. Having recently opened a Safety Center on Block E with the Minneapolis Police Department, we know that youth can use their age or beauty to get a place to sleep. Youthlink, a center two blocks from my brother's buildings, recently started a food shelf. The purpose isn't solely to feed; it's to serve as an alternative form of payment for shelter.
We have 48 beds in all of Hennepin County for homeless youth. One young woman I am working with made artwork from her cardboard sign that read, "Keep your coins, I want change." She is now a student at MCTC, majoring in art.
One recent night at St. Stephen's shelter, we squeezed the last one we could fit between the pop machine and the wall since he was short. Others reported submitting to the bar that allows you to drink free all night if you throw your one-year medallion in the bucket with all the others. They came to us today to start over.
And this morning, I and a woman named Tina both began the day the same way. We rolled out of our beds and onto our knees -- the difference being that the floor beneath her knees was dirt and her alarm clock was the traffic on Interstate 394 passing over her head.
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Steve: My clients are as important to me as my sister's are to her. I concede that stabilizing hers creates opportunities for mine. It's sorrowful to me that my buildings will stand empty and heated throughout the winter months while her clients sleep in porta-potties and cars.
My goals as a businessman are to clean up and sell my downtown site, generate a new tax base, create new jobs and further upgrade the neighborhood around the fancy new stadium. My concern as a taxpayer is to see that our elected officials spend my hard-earned money wisely. It's pretty simple math to show that it costs less to take care of people than to have more people homeless, arrested, failing school and using county services like emergency rooms or detox.
Homelessness is hurting my agenda. I can only hope that my sister's agenda is met, not only for her clients' benefit but for me and our community. The reality is that the problems won't go away because we decide there's no money to address them; we will all have to live with them surrounding us unaddressed.