Sitting on the edge of a bunk bed, Jo Ann Johnson spoke longingly of the day when she will have a place of her own.
She imagines a tidy apartment with her own bathroom, color television and a place on the wall to hang photos of her late husband, who died last spring of Parkinson’s disease.
“For the first time that I can remember, I have hope because I am surrounded by so many people who care,” said Johnson, 59, whose belongings are kept in a backpack near her pillow.
For 35 years, the basement of Simpson United Methodist Church in the Whittier neighborhood of south Minneapolis has served as a much-needed sanctuary for people experiencing the trauma and stress of homelessness. Here, in a below-ground world mostly hidden from the lights and bustle of the streets above, dozens of men and women are sprawled out on bunks and sofas, many too exhausted from a day of work or wandering the streets to move.
Thanks to a generous gift, the nonprofit agency that runs the shelter has gained control over the facility where the 66-bed shelter is housed. The church’s dwindling Methodist congregation voted this fall to donate the aging stucco building to Simpson Housing Services of Minneapolis. The donation ends years of uncertainty over the shelter’s future and could result in a major expansion of its services — all at a time when an extreme shortage of affordable housing is driving greater numbers of low-income renters into homelessness.
While plans are still preliminary, officials at Simpson Housing said they are debating the possibility of building a larger, more modern structure on the property near 1st Avenue and 28th Street. More than likely, the basement shelter will be brought above ground — creating a more humane environment for the hundreds of men and women who pass through its doors each year. “This gives us the chance to dream big,” said Robert Hoffman, the shelter’s program manager. “We are in control of our destiny.”
While small in size, the Simpson shelter has long held a special place among the Twin Cities’ homeless population.
Since its opening in 1982, it has been one of just a handful of shelters that provided more than just a bed and one-night stays. The men and women who quietly filter into the basement each night are allowed to stay weeks and even months, depending on their needs. Many of the staff and volunteers know many of the residents by their first names and have deep ties with housing providers and other agencies that can help people get back on their feet quickly.
On a frigid December night, the dimly lit basement was crammed to overflowing — as it has been for much of the past two years. With all the bunk beds taken, a few men who arrived late collapsed onto couches near the building’s entrance. As volunteers prepared a hot dinner of pasta and salad, the shelter’s staff circulated among the slow-moving crowd, handing out coffee and engaging them in conversations about their lives. An older man emerged from an office, beaming, having just found stable housing after weeks of searching.
Until the 1990s, the Twin Cities was home to a dozen of smaller, church-based shelters like the one operated by Simpson Housing. While often cramped, these shelters had abundant armies of volunteers and fostered meaningful interactions. However, financial pressures and shrinking urban congregations have forced all but three of these church shelters to close. As a result, the metro area has become reliant on a few large facilities, such as the 450-bed Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center in downtown Minneapolis.
The need for homeless shelters, even small ones, has never been greater in Hennepin County. More than 1,500 people in the county rely on a shelter to get a night’s rest, and another 471 have no shelter at all, according to recent counts. The number who have no shelter has nearly doubled since 2014, when it was hovering between 250 and 300 in the county’s quarterly counts. Officials attribute the increase to a tight rental market, which is squeezing people out of their homes and making landlords more selective about tenants.
“In the bigger shelters, people can easily get lost and feel anonymous,” said Monica Nilsson, an advocate for the homeless who worked at the Simpson shelter for 10 years. “The basement [at Simpson United Methodist] may be small and it isn’t fancy, but staff have done a wonderful job over the years creating a sense of community.”
For years, however, there has been concern that this urban refuge would face the same fate as other church-based shelters. Like any old building, the 135-year-old church was showing signs of wear, with occasional leaking pipes and poor ventilation. Until three years ago, the basement had no beds; instead, people slept on mats on the hard floor, close enough to hear one another breathing at night.
Still, the facility has often been referred to as the “Cadillac of shelters” because of its hot meals, clean sheets and relentless focus on helping people connect with community services. “We will keep people as long as it takes to get them back on their feet,” said Stephen Horsfield, executive director at Simpson Housing, on a recent tour of the facility.
Jeffrey Hodgeman, 30, said he was brought to the basement shelter two years ago after homeless outreach workers discovered him, cold and disoriented, sleeping under the Camden Bridge in north Minneapolis. “I was camping, but I was camping in the wrong way,” he said, chuckling. Over the next few months, workers at the shelter connected him with community health services and found him a small apartment.
While no longer homeless, Hodgeman returns to the basement several nights a week as a volunteer — often greeting visitors at the door and heaping out spoonfuls of hot food to the men and women on the dinner line. “This is the family I never had,” said Hodgeman, who has the word “loyalty” tattooed on his forearm. “It’s the only shelter I know where they take the time to acknowledge you and treat you like a human.”