Local organizations look homelessness in the eye

Angela Gray

TEditor’s note: This article is the second in a two-part series about homelessness near the University.

1he face of homelessness has multiple expressions.

Organizations and individuals throughout the University community, surrounding cities, the state and beyond are trying to keep that multitude from growing.

Monica Nilsson, program director for The Bridge, a Minneapolis shelter for runaways and homeless people younger than 21, was on her way Wednesday to a commission on homelessness made up of state, county and city officials and business leaders with the purpose of supporting a national campaign to end homelessness.

While certain institutional forces keep some people homeless, like some of those students see on campus every day, there are organizations trying to fix the problem through education, legislation and empowerment.

Anyone, Nillson stressed, can become homeless.

She said the shelter, as well as other shelters in the Twin Cities, have housed University employees and students.

After the meeting, Nilsson mentioned a homeless high school student named Robin with a 3.8 grade point average who was accepted at Howard University, who spoke to the Minneapolis commission on her own issues with homelessness.

“I hope people will see that some of our brightest future college students are homeless as well,” Nilsson said.

Nilsson said Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration has created a 10-year plan to end long-term homelessness.

“We’ve already studied and seen through a cost analysis that it is not cost effective to have people be homeless,” Nilsson said.

University

Steve Johnson, University deputy chief of police, said officers find homeless people on campus both blending in with students and perpetuating some homelessness stereotypes.

“Many of our officers know the people that are homeless because they have multiple contacts with them around campus,” he said.

The University campus is near the Phillips neighborhood, home to the one of the largest urban American Indian populations in the country.

Therefore, a larger percentage of American Indian people might be found homeless in the area, said Diane Brown, assistant to the director of University Facility Services.

Brown, who is American Indian, wrote in an e-mail that the introduction of alcohol into American Indian culture, a long history of racism and a “lack of job opportunities for American Indian people, especially men, to this day has led many to choose life on the streets.”

Johnson said that when dispatchers receive calls about homeless people on campus, callers usually are afraid or concerned about suspicious activities such as sleeping in public places.

Brown said she has not heard of any complaints from faculty or staff members regarding homeless people on campus.

Thadis Coley, first-year history student, said he doesn’t see homeless people as a threat.

“I’m not annoyed by homeless people because I have been exposed to them before,” he said, “although people should be cautious.”

What officers usually find and how they respond depends on the circumstances, Johnson said.

“If officers find someone sleeping in public areas that are not causing problems or disturbances, we’re not going to boot them from that place,” he said.

Johnson said that unless the person has a history of violations like trespassing or things that were borderline illegal or suspicious they will not take action.

“People have to be more than homeless (for police to do something),” he said.

While many homeless people don’t cause problems, over the years University police have found some living “in buildings, urinating in rooms and stealing things like keys and entering buildings after hours,” he said.

“There are no University policies on ‘homelessness’ itself,” he said. “There are only policies for anyone, homeless or not, causing trouble on campus.”

There are also students on campus trying to resolve the problem of homelessness.

Catherine Osborne, nursing senior and president of the University chapter of Habitat for Humanity, said their mission is to make decent, affordable housing a matter of conscience.

The organization operates within a group of area college chapters to raise money and together split up labor and work on building houses.

“Education is becoming a bigger component,” Osborne said. “We want to inform students about affordable housing issues in the Twin Cities and around the world.”

Osborne said Habitat for Humanity tries to get as many students as possible educated and involved.

“The basic necessity of having a home sets up opportunities to be free from illness, and have nutrition and safety,” she said.

She said the most rewarding part is to work with people that want to help themselves.

“It’s very empowering,” Osborne said.

Twin Cities

Michael Dahl, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, a statewide advocacy, community education and technical assistance program, said, “There is no doubt that homelessness is a huge problem.”

Dahl said that every night the state has 20,000 people homeless or precariously housed.

“People need to step back and ask why it is that people become homeless,” he said.

He said the reasons stem from not having enough affordable housing and jobs to pay for that housing.

The coalition works with state government, Dahl said, to provide training for organizers and to secure state bonds to build more supportive housing for homeless people.

They have received $20 million from the Senate and have requested $43 million in the House to end long-term homelessness and help people who have just become homeless reconnect to mainstream housing, Dahl said.

He said it’s difficult to draw comparisons between homelessness in Minnesota and other states.

“In general Minnesota has a lot more information on who is homeless in the state,” Dahl said. “Some states might seem better off but it’s just that they don’t know.”

Dahl said that when states don’t have affordable housing and a market with low-paying jobs, homelessness is the result.

There’s no quick fix, said Betsy LaMarre, program director for Minneapolis’ St. Anne’s Place which houses mostly mothers and children, 16 families at a time.

“There is no common scenario as to how families got here,” she said.

LaMarre said people should be aware of the number of homeless individuals in their community and the issues they face.

“People should visit the shelters, meet the people being housed and talk with them,” she said.

The Dignity Center in Minneapolis has two paid employees – the director and a man who was homeless when he first came to the center two years ago, said advocacy leader Phyllis Thomson.

The idea behind the center is to get people from wherever they are to where they want to be.

“John (the employee) was a drug addict, abandoned his children and was wanted in three states for neglecting child-support payments,” Thomson said.

She said that in his life plan he made a list of things he needed to fix, fixed them and is now working on a second life plan.

“I think it’s something we could all use every once in a while,” she said.