Mike Menner strolled into the reception area of St. Stephen’s Human Services, where an hour earlier people had lined up in search of advice on where to find an apartment, a meal, or a bed just for the evening.
“Illinois?” Menner called.
A young man in the first row, dressed in clean but casual clothes, raised his hand. Menner escorted him into a private room and pulled out a folder containing an application from Illinois for a birth certificate, along with a “cheat sheet” that helps Menner negotiate the rules from every state in America on the procedure to obtain a person’s birth certificate.
“Illinois” is Kevin, a quiet, polite man who moved to Minnesota and secured a job. But his employer needs identification to complete the employment process, and Kevin’s Illinois license has expired. To get a Minnesota ID, he needs a birth certificate, which he’s lost somewhere along the many moves that got him here. St. Stephen’s is where so many of the poor and homeless turn, looking to have their existence validated.
In 1996, St. Stephen’s helped 92 clients find their birth certificates. Last fiscal year, that number was 872. Kevin is just one of those many people, always on the move, who lose track of personal documents. Incredibly, St. Stephen’s helps people acquire their birth certificates, then keeps them on file for nine years. They recently retrieved one that they’d gotten for a client in 2006. The man cried.
Menner’s attention to the issue has earned him the nickname “the birth certificate savant.” But savant infers Menner has only one gift, when he actually is more of a jack of all trades of homeless issues. He helps people on fixed incomes budget and pay their bills, for example.
He’s known to be able to cut right through bureaucracy to smooth the way for people moving from homelessness into housing, or help them get a meal after they’ve been evicted from their homes.
So, it’s a good thing he has knife skills, obtained with a culinary degree from a prominent cooking school that was to be his second career, before the crash of 2008. Instead, Menner went back to social work, recently marking 25 years on the job. Now, one of his gifts is to cook for “the guys,” as he refers to clients, and for staff parties. He’s organized drop-in meals on Thanksgiving and Christmas, casual affairs where people can hang out and reconnect with others from previous meals. For special fundraising dinners, Menner makes pasta sauces and fresh focaccia bread, from scratch.
“He found a way to take what he loves and use it to show love and compassion to people,” said Eileen Smith, who worked as a volunteer with Menner and is now a friend. “He knows everybody on the streets and treats them with respect and dignity. He’s an amazing and humble man.”
Made connections, stayed
Menner grew up outside Cleveland, got an interdisciplinary liberal arts degree and joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, working with some street-hardened clients, even though he was extremely introverted. Menner eventually moved to do service in Minneapolis, living at St. Stephen’s human services building. He made connections, got married, and stayed.
“The first year I just remember being overwhelmed by these guys,” Menner said.
Now, he can look out his window on Nicollet Avenue and see someone he worked with a decade ago. One recent passerby was “New York Jack,” someone Menner knew to be doing fairly well the past decade, living in a suburban apartment after finding sobriety.
Menner has seen many successes, but success is a relative term. Sometimes clients will live independently for years, then end up back on the streets, usually because of a chemical dependency or mental health problem.
Besides orchestrating the agency’s birth certificate library, Menner has been the creator and publisher of the “Handbook of the Streets,” a directory updated annually that is given out to tens of thousands of social agencies, police and the poor and homeless. It lists everything from where clients find shelter to names of dentists willing to work on their teeth. Menner often sees people on the street with the manual sticking out of their pockets. He can tell what year it’s from by the color and frequently offers them updated handbooks.
“It’s something people can carry in their back pocket, or in a backpack,” said Menner. “It tells them, here’s where you can get dinner tonight. If information is power, we give them power.”
A ‘stable presence’
Monica Nilsson, director of community engagement for the agency, said Menner is important in the homeless community because he’s survived the “burn through” that many advocates face and is a “stable presence,” Nilsson said. “Going through homelessness is difficult, and it’s hard to keep telling your story to people who have been in the system for one year. Mike is generally not the protagonist in the story; he’s the person quietly working in the background.”
Menner also has become nominally famous for his Fiesta de Beisbol parties that celebrate the sport and community. He hosted the last of the 25 gatherings in July. He admits to “dual citizenship” whenever the Twins play Cleveland.
Because people who work with the homeless don’t get rich, Menner has worked his “hobby job” of doing cooking demonstrations for a kitchen store. Menner plans to give up the second job later this month because his family wants to visit all the state parks.
Meanwhile, Menner gave Kevin some advice and told him he could get legal help on his birth certificate quest by coming back next week.
“I’ll be here on time,” said Kevin. “No, I’ll be early.”
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