Homeless in Minneapolis: A day in the life of a family in emergency shelter

By Cynthia Boyd
Contributing Writer

Gregory Ellis starts his days at the front desk of People Serving People (PSP), a multi-story brownstone near the Metrodome that offers shelter to homeless families.

It’s there he picks up his family’s daily quota of diapers, 10, as well as juice and milk, enough to tide three kids over until meal times. Upstairs, in a plain but oversized hotel-kind-of-room with fantastic cityscape views, his wife Waukisha and their three children get ready for another day.

Not his own place yet, not home that room, Ellis tells me, but a hopeful stop on the way to better times.

A dark-eyed, sincere man, 41-year-old Ellis struggles to explain how they came to this. “You can’t live in a tent. You don’t live under a viaduct,’’ he says, a proud man striving still to understand how a family that once made $62,000 a year ended up homeless in Minneapolis.

Waukisha once worked at MCI Bank, Greg was a chef at Doolittles, and they owned two cars, he says. Now the very pillows they sleep on are borrowed, they travel by bus in search of free clothes, and they send out dozens of employment résumés a week. Still, they can’t find work to support themselves.

The Ellises are five people in the sea of an estimated 13,100 homeless any given night in Minnesota, according to Wilder Research. One recent sunny October Monday they shared their day, letting photographer Peter Koeleman and me follow along in the shelter and on the streets with their children Malachi, four, Gabriel, two, and Faith, one.

A place for sleeping

We meet the rest of the family upstairs, greeted by Malachi with affectionate hugs around our knees, shy looks from his younger brother and sister, a warm handshake from Waukisha.

“We’re living a circus every day,’’ confides 32-year-old Waukisha with a small laugh. “When you’re homeless, planning your day is three times more challenging,’’ she says — especially with children.

Their room is their haven, the Ellises say: oversized, private, and with its own bathroom and shower. At its center are their beds all pushed together into one wide family bed neatly covered with mismatched quilts.

Opposite stand bookshelves where diapers, a few clothes and sparse other belongings are stacked neatly. The Bible lies open on a small nightstand.

Outside their window, the sun shines in a turquoise sky on people going about their work days.

Inside, fascinated with Peter’s cameras, young Malachi begs to shoot, a petition Peter obliges before the boy’s parents distract him with a bucket of Legos that he promptly dumps on the floor for play.

Heading out of the room, Malachi more escapes than leaves, like a bumblebee set free from a jar.

A journey

The Ellises say their journey from homelessness headed a positive direction Sept. 8 when they came to the PSP residence on South Third Street in downtown Minneapolis. One of the largest temporary and emergency shelters in the state, it’s a bright, welcoming and safe place where families live while seeking jobs and housing.

One recent October night, PSP housed 344 individuals, including 105 families with 201 children younger than 18.

For the Ellis family, Hennepin County pays $153 a day for room, board and services, with the actual costs figuring at close to $300, says Janine Wenholz, PSP’s director of finance and operations. She says 52 percent of the cost is covered by public money with the rest deriving from private dollars.

This fall, families are staying here an average 46 days — up from the typical 30-day stay last year, Wenholz said, while the social service systems across the county and city work to help families find homes and jobs. Though often necessary for short-term crises, emergency shelter, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, is a “costly alternative to permanent housing.’’

Still, in the Twin Cities, shelters are full to overflowing, as in most places around the country, says Cathy ten Broeke, coordinator to end homelessness for the City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County, despite programs that in better economic times had made promising inroads toward ending homelessness.

In Hennepin County on Oct. 6, all 225 rooms for families were full, ten Broeke said, with the Drake Hotel, an overflow shelter, housing an additional 49 families. Still, last year that day there were 60 families staying at the Drake, she said.

Shelter becomes home

Right now, for the lucky Ellis family, PSP is home.

Here a friendly uniformed guard waves residents through metal detectors and past a floor mat boasting “Helping families find their way home.’’ A flat screen television hangs from the lobby ceiling playing “Dora the Explorer” cartoons.

Here there are social workers and advocates, an employment coordinator, a technology center with computers, a library, medical clinic, a child development center and preschool and tutoring services for school age children.

“You guys are like our extended family. You’re like aunts and uncles,’’ Greg tells retiring PSP director Jim Minor, who comes to greet us.

Minor thanks him, adding, “We want you to feel good and safe here, but to get out of here”’ and on to self-sufficiency and a better life.

Coming here

The Ellis family history is punctuated by both successes and challenges since they married in 2003: steady employment, lost jobs, a stint driving “up and down” the West Coast because “life’s an adventure,’’ their son Gabriel’s past medical problems, some housing problems involving late rent payments from a public agency, and their charge of racism against another landlord.

The Ellises say Greg’s recent job loss and poor employment prospects brought them back to the Twin Cities from Beaverton, Ore., just outside Portland. Health problems — Ellis broke his leg — factored in as well.

They felt sure they’d find work here, she in banking or customer service jobs, he in the food industry or management sales. Greg had more than a couple of years at Metro State University before switching gears and graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, a culinary school in Minneapolis.

For many years he worked in the food industry, including for a major hotel chain, opening up restaurants across the country. But that lifestyle once seemed too hard on a family, Greg said. In retrospect, he regrets leaving the restaurant industry: “I probably should have stayed cooking.’’

Before leaving the northwest, they sold their Ford Taurus and other belongings, packed a few clothes, a laptop computer, crafts and toys for their children, and bought Greyhound bus tickets for Minneapolis, arriving with a stash of cash and five bags. They made a $470 down-payment on a downstairs apartment in a St. Paul house, but that deal fell through with them losing most of their deposit, Greg said.

With no place to lay their heads, they spent a few days with a friend, two nights sleeping at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport, and additional nights at the Drake Hotel, Hennepin County’s overflow homeless shelter for families.

At PSP they have access to advocacy services, a computer lab, daycare, a medical clinic, job counseling and other services. This day Waukisha is off to talk with a PSP job adviser while Greg amuses the kids in the children’s library.

She meets with PSP intern job counselor Danica Daleiden, who is helping her work up a job résumé listing not only jobs but also the job skills she’s acquired over the years. The materials detail her customer service certification, problem-solving abilities, work as a bank teller and “excellent communication skills and dependability.”

“It actually sounds really good. It sounds lovely,’’ Waukisha says, though admitting, “I’m trying so hard not to go back into banking right now.’’

Yet skills learned will translate to other kinds of jobs as well, Daleiden tells her, explaining how she’ll receive a CD of the résumé and a cover letter.

She hands her a black pocket folder listing job websites and shows her a three-ring binder listing current jobs.

Would she like to set up an appointment to practice job-interviewing? Yes, Waukisha says, adding, “I’ve always been terrible at that.” Once she has an interview, PSP will see she has interview clothes, head to toe.

“I’m excited to go looking again,” Waukisha says as she leaves. Later she’ll head to the on-site computer room to check her emails, pointing to a request from Delta Airlines — more than a week old — for the names of people who can recommend her.

Though a staff person helps Waukisha find the reference’s New York City address, she says she can’t follow up right then. This particular afternoon the Ellises must go to Sabathani Community Center to look for clothes for their children.

In the library

In the library down the hall, Waukisha tells Greg the jobs adviser “…did a rocking job…but I don’t want to count money.’’

Around them, Gabe — the “one-shoe wonder” because he’s always kicking off one shoe or the other — and baby Faith look at books, but Malachi grabs a huge armful off a shelf and drops them to the floor.

His mother scolds gently: “When you do that, Malachi, Mommy has to clean it up and Mommy gets cranky,’’ she tells him. The boy looks a little contrite and comes to her for a hug.

You’re so mellow, I tell her. “Cindy doesn’t get to see me about a quarter to midnight,’’ she says. “I get anxiety. I know I’m going to be locked in, that I can’t go outside for a smoke.’’

“We have our reality moments,” Greg agrees. “We’ve cried; we’ve screamed. We have our angry moments, our pity moments.”

It’s the looking for jobs that can get them down, the Ellises say, the hundreds of qualified applicants for the same job in these recessionary times.

Still, he expects life will change for the better now, with PSP and the family’s access to County support programs. “I’m being smart. I’m utilizing resources’’ in an effort to get back on the self-sufficiency track, Greg says.

Lunch cafeteria-style

Midday, Waukisha leads the family to PSP’s dining room, choosing a long table against a back wall, out of the mainstream in hopes her children will settle quietly to eating rather be distracted by the people around them.

Food is plentiful: rich pea soup, tomato-sauced meat loaf, beef cubes on rice, canned green beans, pineapple tidbits and a two-bite cupcake. Bread and salad are available as well. At the table, Greg and Malachi pray: “Thank you, Jesus, for all our food and our family. Amen.’’

The food is hot and tasty, but it doesn’t take long for explorer Malachi to start roaming the lunch room, stopping to chat with friends, including Lauren Rimestad, PSP’s development coordinator. Across the table from her sits Craig Lewis, a distinguished Black man in a dress suit who is PSP’s incoming president and CEO.

“Are you Obama?’’ Malachi asks him.

On the bus

After lunch, when many pre-schoolers head for the sheets and their afternoon nap, the Ellises and their children trek to Sabathani Community Center’s free store to search for children’s clothes. They’re a close family, “a team, a unit, a little company,’’ Greg says, hugging often, going nearly everywhere together. Still, it’s a tiring trip for short legs.

Our seven-mile roundtrip by foot and by bus — factoring in a stroller only for Faith, bus transfers and bus waits — takes about 100 minutes, compared to the 14 minutes MapQuest clocks for a roundtrip drive to Sabathani Community Center on East 38th Street. On the bus, a big and tall man gives up his seat to a tired Malachi.

Greg worries he won’t have time to make a necessary phone call. He needs to call a staffer with the Rapid Exit Program for Hennepin County, a national model for speeding families’ transition from emergency shelter to permanent housing, says ten Broeke. Federal stimulus in the form of $6.5 million aids that program and other homelessness prevention efforts, she says.

Still, for want of a phone, Greg can’t make that call from a bus, though he could make it from PSP where he is assigned a voicemail phone number. Lunch time and three hungry kids took priority, however. So I hand him my cell phone.

He calls, gets voicemail, and leaves his name and number in a game of phone tag.

Clothes cache

At Sabathani, Waukisha heads to the clothes shop where she’s handed a white plastic bag and given 15 minutes to make her selections. In a small room with shelves and racks marked by size and gender, she heads for the children’s clothes.

“Oh my gosh, oh my gosh,’’ she says at finding pants and jeans for Malachi.

For Gabe there is a pair of pants and two shirts, for Faith, pajamas and sweat pants. For herself, a sweatshirt, and then, “I found a coat! I found a coat!’’ she marveled. “This is beyond a blessing.’’

For Greg, there is nothing. Still, they’re thankful as they head back to the corner bus stop. The lumbering vehicle lulls all three children to sleep.

Thanks to Cynthia Boyd and MinnPost for sharing this story with us. It is made possible by support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Minneapolis Foundation, and some Minneapolis Foundation donor advisors.