Programs serving the homeless have dug in for the long haul
By Dwight Hobbes
Increasingly, homelessness has grown from being a temporary problem to being a chronic condition all across America. The cause is multi-pronged.
Mortgage New Daily reported on June 1, “Predatory lending practices can leave victims homeless and defeated, stripped of self-respect and hope, their credit ruined.” The National Coalition for the Homeless states, “There were 342,038 foreclosure filings on U.S. properties in April 2009, a 32 percent increase compared with foreclosures in April 2008.”
Unemployment has steadily worsened with six million jobs having been lost since the recession began. Substance abuse, mental illness and domestic violence contribute as well. Landlords, responding to the nation’s financial crisis, avail themselves of the option to sell their buildings to developers who, in turn, invest in gentrification, pricing all but the most comfortably well off out of a home.
There are no signs of any of this turning around, placing organizations like People Serving People (PSP) and the Dorothy Day Center, a national entity with operations in Minneapolis and St. Paul, in the forefront of any discussion of the problem.
This social catastrophe has so worsened that PSP no longer offers services to single men — unless they have children. It is, since 2002, a family shelter.
Juanita and her young sons have been at People Serving People, 614 South 3rd Street, in Minneapolis, a little over a month. “I love how the advocate has been helping me,” she says.
“I mainly work with one person, Terry. She prints [information] about apartment and job listings. I go [into her office] and I’ll be so frustrated, because I’ve been on so many interviews and get discouraged. But she just keeps pushing me, like, do not give up.”
Which can make all the difference in the world, simply getting a shot in the arm for your morale. Job hunting and looking for affordable housing aren’t easy in the best of times, and these, it goes without saying, are not the best of times. “She helps me keep my confidence,” Juanita says of her advocate.
With a background of 15 years as a youth counselor and considerable experience as a cashier and as a hostess, Juanita can avail herself of résumé writing resources at PSP to best present her interpersonal relations skills to a prospective employer. She certainly comes across as a viable candidate to work, for instance, in customer service.
There is an essential resource that helps Juanita to be her own best ally: her attitude. Even at times when her spirits are low, she doesn’t sit around expecting things to be done for her. “I pray a lot. Every day.” And she adheres to the adage about God helping those who help themselves: “I make sure to show up for my appointments. Do what I’m asked to and not just say I’m too tired or don’t have time.
“It can be hard jumping through all the hoops you need to so you can get on your feet. But you have to do what you have to do, because who is going to do it for you? Sitting on your butt, making excuses and finding things to complain about sure doesn’t help.”
Lauren Rimestad, development manager at People Serving People, reflects on what can be done to make a difference for clients like Juanita, to move them forward from temporary to permanent housing. The outlook, no matter how positive a client’s attitude, remains bleak.
Things are bad and getting worse. Take, for instance, the increasingly scant supply of affordable, much less low-income housing. Not far from PSP in the Elliot Park neighborhood, Bethlehem Baptist Church last year demolished two buildings where residents earning small salaries had been able to keep a roof overhead.
“People Serving People can’t create housing out there,” Rimestad notes. “And the vacancy rate is the lowest it has been historically in the Twin Cities area. The rental is about $900 for a two-bedroom apartment on the average.”
On top of which, employment continues to decline. “We can’t replace jobs,” Rimestad adds, “but we can give a family the best possible support in terms of having the top résumé [in] the pile, a well-written [job] application. Using blue or black ink. Using a respectable email address. Some of those basics that are taken for granted.”
Such fundamentals certainly can make a difference when there is overwhelming competition for a dwindling supply of homes and jobs. If the next person hasn’t been as adequately coached on the fundamentals, interviewing techniques, proper attire and other incidentals that, put together, make a favorable impression, your chances of getting on a prospective landlord or employer’s good side have to improve.
PSP extends itself to help everyone it can. However, as CEO Daniel Gumnit points out, “If you’re going to stay here more than 60 days, you are going to be actively looking for work or actively searching for a home.”
Not an unreasonable criteria and a boon in that one doesn’t, after a stipulated time period, have to pack up and start over someplace else. That goes a long way toward a sense of continuity and being able to stay focused on improving one’s lot rather than worriedly scrambling to not wind up on the sidewalk.
Anne [last name], an advocate at PSP, states that being able to help clients do quality searches is another way to make a difference in getting them placed. Instead of simply handing them a 311 guidebook and wishing them luck, “We look into different resources that are out there, [making certain that] we’re knowledgeable about where we can refer people.
“[This includes] housing, employment, mental health. When families come in, within 48 hours there is an orientation. And we answer questions throughout there stay,” she explains.
There, what Rimestad refers to as an open-door policy essentially means providing around-the-clock access to advocates. While it’s best to arrange an appointment, if a client has a pressing need and an advocate is free, the client has only to knock on the door. In short, PSP squares off against daunting circumstances and does all it can to be in the client’s corner.
Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul has the not-quite-happy distinction of observing its 30th anniversary. When the homeless shelter opened in 1981, it was thought that homelessness in the Twin Cities was a temporary problem. That, of course, has not proven to be the case.
Tim Marx, CEO of Catholic Charities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, says of the need to respond to ongoing homelessness, “The first and primary reason communities should address homelessness is one of human dignity. We are all one human family. When one of us is distressed, we have some responsibility to assist with a hand up and way out of that distress.
“Second,” Marx continues, “we get community benefit when we address the needs of those who are experiencing homelessness. When you experience homelessness, the system is burdened — our social service system, our detox centers, emergency rooms, jails, our other institutions — because [the homeless] rely on those as their source of support.
“And those are very expensive interventions. The homeless, the community and taxpayers are much better off when we develop solutions. The Dorothy Day Center is a part of that to get people back on track. To help them with jobs and to become a contributing member of society.”
Marx doesn’t ascribe to the notion that the problem is exacerbated by ne’er-do-wells who exploit the Twin Cities’ liberal social services system as a lifestyle instead of a potential springboard. “I don’t agree, [and] from the following perspective: We take people where they are. There are many different reasons [for being homeless]. It is Catholic Charities’ philosophy to take everyone where they are and work with them.
“We don’t know all the personal circumstance as to why they’re homeless,” Marx says, “what mental illness they may have, chemical issues, whether they’ve been a veteran with posttraumatic disorder syndrome. Frankly, they may behave badly, may have other things they could be doing but are not quite ready for that. Everybody is deserving of respect, dignity and assistance.”
What of mental illness and its impact on the growing permanence of what was supposed to be temporary homelessness? “One thing we experience at Catholic Charities is an increased level of mental stress among those who are relying on our services. It is troubling. It’s a challenge to confront and treat.
“The overall strategy is to engage them and develop a relationship of trust so they are able to work with you and begin understanding and resolving the issues that are causing their illness and to be open to treatment. [Which] could involve a number of things. Sometimes it just takes a heck of a lot of time. And patience, sometimes years.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work. Human beings are very complex. We are not going to give up.”
As Tim Marx points out, some people cannot be salvaged easily, if ever. For those who manage to prevail, the efforts by People Serving People (PSP) and the Dorothy Day Center surely are worth the time taken and the effort extended.
Paul Weyandt has been homeless and worked in the homelessness system for 15 years until this summer; his last job was as an advocate at Catholic Charities. He can attest first hand to what sort of difference it makes going from being homeless to having a home.
“People stabilize. Stability makes people shine. And it works real good with their mental health. Being homeless beats people down into the ground. When you get housing, your whole world changes.”
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.