Community groups gear up to expand shelter space

When communities work together to fight homelessness, everyone wins.

Michael Rietmulder

As I write from my desk in a drafty Minneapolis apartment, I gaze out the window while a thick snowfall continues to accumulate on parked cars already buried by MinnesotaâÄôs most abundant natural resource.

In my cozy, compact living room I am protected from the elements. But I know there are many people out there who donâÄôt have the luxury of a home to retreat to during the frigid winter months.

Given the harshness of MinnesotaâÄôs winter wonderland, IâÄôm grateful for my drafty apartment and a radiator which operates on its own agenda, often conflicting with mine.

A snow emergency has been declared, and I worry about whether IâÄôm parked on the right side of the street. I hope I donâÄôt get towed again.

But for thousands of Minnesotans a recalcitrant radiator and a potential trip to the impound lot are the least of their concerns. TheyâÄôre worried about where theyâÄôre going to sleep tonight.

As Minne-snow-taâÄôs harshest season begins, homeless shelters fill to capacity. Carina Ruhlandt, of the Salvation ArmyâÄôs Harbor Light Center, said that last year they were concerned about having 100 people in their overflow space. Last week they hit that number.

“Our worst fears have been realized,” Ruhlandt said.

Overcrowding is not uncommon at Harbor LightâÄôs downtown location on Currie Avenue. Ruhlandt pointed out that the center is the only overnight shelter in the Twin Cities that refuses to turn people away when it reaches capacity.

“The other shelters are aware of that, and so they can feel confident that they can turn people away knowing that weâÄôre not going to let somebody die on the street on a cold night,” she said.

Instead, Harbor Light fills its hallways with people and offers chairs to guests when no beds are available.

But next weekend, Harbor Light hopes to have an additional 50 beds at First Covenant Church in MinneapolisâÄô Elliot Park neighborhood. The two organizations have been working in concert to obtain an interim use permit from the city that would allow the church to serve as an overnight shelter during the winter months. The Minneapolis City Council is expected to vote on the permit at its Friday meeting.

For Dan Collison, First CovenantâÄôs lead pastor and East Downtown Council member, the need for additional shelter space is apparent. “There are families and individuals with children hauling suitcases up and down Hennepin Avenue and the streets of downtown,” he said. “ItâÄôs just alarming.”

Current economic conditions have only added to the problem of homelessness. Despite the fact that the unemployment rate in Minneapolis is significantly lower than the national average âÄî 6.6 percent compared with 9.8 percent âÄî many are struggling to find work.

A 2009 Wilder Foundation survey found that nearly 20 percent of Hennepin CountyâÄôs unemployed homeless population was laid off in the past six months. Respondents cited a lack of employment opportunities as one of the leading impediments to finding a job.

“We know that homelessness is a lagging indicator of an economic situation,” Ruhlandt said. “So the fear in our shelter community now is that weâÄôre only just beginning to see the worst numbers that are possible in our community.”

Many homeless people suffer from mental or physical health issues or chemical dependency. These issues often prevent them from finding work and stable housing. Ruhlandt said providing permanent housing can allow people to focus on other issues preventing them from gaining employment.

“Sometimes just having a stable, calm place to call home can resolve some of those other barriers for people and give them the emotional capacity to address something like a mental health or drug treatment issue,” she said.

In 2006, Hennepin County and the city of Minneapolis launched Heading Home Hennepin, a comprehensive 10-year plan to end homelessness. The program will fund the shelter at First Covenant, which will be run by Harbor Light staff with additional volunteers and donations from members of the congregation and the community.

Leya Copper, a graduate student in the University of MinnesotaâÄôs College of Education and Human Development, will be volunteering at the First Covenant shelter. In August, Copper moved to Minnesota from San Francisco âÄî where homelessness is rampant âÄî and became a member of the churchâÄôs congregation.

“As soon as I heard the church I was attending was going to be opening a shelter, I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to jump in and do something that I was aware of being an issue in a different city,” Copper said.

CopperâÄôs and CollisonâÄôs enthusiasm for helping those in need and engaging the community is infectious. This is evident by the support First Covenant has received from various neighborhood groups and businesses. “They recognize that the homeless are already on our streets in east downtown and Elliot Park and that we have to be a part of the solutions rather than just saying âÄògo away,âÄô” Collison said.

While providing temporary shelter is a critical “Band-Aid” solution, itâÄôs important to keep an eye on long-term fixes which create healthier, sustainable communities.

“We certainly donâÄôt see shelter as the primary fix,” Ruhlandt said. “We see providing people with their own housing as the solution to ending homelessness.”

 

Michael Rietmulder welcomes comments at [email protected].