I am 84 years old and volunteer full time with St. Stephen’s Human Services Street Outreach Team. The team is responsible for making contact with and advocating for homeless people who are living outside in camps under the bridges, by the river or any other place not visible to the general public. On any given evening right now in this arctic air, at least 200 to 300 folks suffer this fate in just the greater Minneapolis area.
So while I am outraged that some of our fellow human beings are left to suffer such a life, I do, in fact, understand why the public is not expressing a similar concern, why the media is not publicizing the fact that a section of our great society is living in conditions unfit for human habitation, and why the Legislature and the business community are not finding economic relief to end this tragedy. You do not see what we see.
We engage with these folks where they are. You may see them on Nicollet Mall or by a freeway exit holding a cardboard sign asking for help. You might also see them sitting in the IDS Crystal Court or at the Hennepin County Central library. But what you don’t see is them bedding down on the ground for the night on top of a broken-down cardboard box, zipped into a sleeping bag (if they’re lucky enough to have one) and covered with blankets. No toilet, no shower, none of the comforts of home — only the bridge deck above to protect them from the elements.
Contrary to the opinion of some, these folks are not slackers. Their barriers to employment include mental illness, physical disabilities, felony criminal records and chemical dependency — none of which should deny them from living in a safe environment. The mentally ill were turned out of state institutions years ago and now, years later, we haven’t replaced the number of units of housing we lost. Most of the chemically dependent have turned to alcohol as an escape from the hopelessness they feel with the reality of their lives.
I was prompted to voice my outrage by the deaths of two folks with whom I had been working closely. Both died in the past month of exposure while sleeping outside, leaving me to wonder what more I could have done to keep them safe. In the past two years, five others I knew perished from causes related to homelessness, two of them of exposure.
Now I’m asking the public, the media and the Legislature to become aware of the horrendous conditions many of our fellow humans are living and dying in and to ask what more you can do to put an end to this social travesty. If you are willing to learn more or help, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or St. Stephen’s Street Outreach at 612-879-7624.
Jerry Fleischaker lives in Minneapolis.