Homeless in a cold place

Michelle Kibiger

Carolyn Beckham left her home and most of her possessions behind to move into the People Serving People shelter in downtown Minneapolis a couple weeks ago. Her husband, who is now in the Lino Lakes correctional facility, had abused her, and she feared his friends and girlfriend would harm her and her children.
At the shelter she has three meals each day and her own room, and her 18-month-old son Monteque can go to Head Start every day.
Across the river Edgar Romeo Coleman calls the streets on and around the University campus home. He sleeps wherever he can and was recently found sleeping in the doorway of Coffman Memorial Union. Over the past 12 months, he has received five trespassing notices.
Beckham and Coleman represent the two extremes of a demographic group which includes thousands of Twin Cities and Minnesota residents — the homeless. Domestic violence, abuse, alcoholism and mental illness are some of the main problems which cause people to live on the streets.
“I don’t look at nobody when they’re homeless on the street and laugh at them,” Beckham said. “We’re all in the same boat.”
The National Resource Center for Homelessness and Mental Illness estimate that nearly 7 million people are homeless on any given night in the United States. In 1994 the Minnesota Department of Economic Security reported that more than 3,500 men, women and children use shelters in the metropolitan area.
However, those are only the shelter users. Officials have no way to track people who don’t seek financial assistance or shelter.
Peter Hiniker, director of adult housing for Hennepin County, said counting individuals is difficult because of the different definitions of homelessness. Although public officials have not ordered a census of the homeless in recent years, private research indicates that the number of homeless people using shelters in the Twin Cities metro area has more than tripled in the last 12 years from 1,057 to 3,595. In greater Minnesota over the same time period, the number of homeless has increased more than four times from 217 to 897.
Closer to home, Hennepin County housed an average of 565 individuals in shelters each month in 1996.
A movement to stop institutionalizing individuals for particular mental disorders in the 1980s is one explanation for the large jump in the numbers of homeless people. However, officials are still puzzled about what other factors might contribute to a rise.
Hiniker said the increase could be attributed in part to constantly fluctuating eligibility requirements for aid.
Hennepin County supports four shelters in the Twin Cities area. In addition to these, there are several smaller private facilities for families and single adults. Also, both the county and Catholic Charities operate places where those needing shelter can come in off the street and have a mat to sleep on. Although these places don’t have beds and individual rooms as do shelters, many homeless people appreciate having a place to go where it is warm and dry.
“I heard about this place from friends,” said Charles Pettway, a homeless man from Sacramento, California. He said he liked it because it was safe and warm.
However, the number of people living in area shelters tends to decline during the cold winter months. Shelter usage rates increase between 20 and 25 percent during the summer months.
Hiniker said this is because landlords are less likely in the winter to evict the poor from their homes because they aren’t paying their rent. Also, Jenni Hargraves, director of development for People Serving People, said families and friends take in destitute individuals during the holiday season.
Nevertheless, many homeless people in the Twin Cities said life on the streets is hard.
Everett White, a Native American from South Dakota, said he has fought people on the street several times and has the knife and gunshot wounds to prove it.
“I don’t want to fight no more,” White said.
Nineteen-year-old Leon Blackcloud also came to Minnesota from South Dakota. The depth of his words and the calmness with which he spoke them, combined with a deep scar along the left side of his face, make him seem as though he were a much older man than he is.
“To fight this (homelessness) we all got to get together,” Blackcloud said. He also said those living on the street need to work together for protection, too. “We’ve got to take care of each other.”
Blackcloud said there are two kinds of destitute people — those who want to get off the streets and have control over their own lives and those who like drifting from city to city.
“They like living like this, because they don’t feel like there’s no way they can live out there,” he said.
Blackcloud said he wants to have a place of his own and all he needs to do is save a little money because life on the street is the worst place for him to be.
Hiniker said it’s hard to say what separates the people who seek to get out of the shelters from those who prefer to live on the street. He said that mental illness and alcoholism might play large roles in a person’s ability to cope with societal pressures.
Mental illness and chemical dependency are not the only circumstances which cause a person to choose homelessness, Hiniker said. But “how those conditions impair a person’s ability to cope with other circumstances that come upon them” does play a major role in homelessness, he said.
University Police Sgt. Joe May said the difference is that many homeless people, especially those who live on and around the Twin Cities campus, are unable to function in society. He said they exhibit anti-social behavior and generally do not fit into any part of society, like the workforce or educational institutions.
University Police have combatted the abundance of indigent individuals on campus by issuing trespassing warnings which ban people from being in University buildings and facilities for one year.
May said needy people are attracted to the University because students are perceived to have more compassion than others. Also, May said, the large number of buildings gives people more places to hide and thereby maintain some level of anonymity.
Many poor people look for shelter on the west bank or crawl spaces around the hospital on the east bank. May said he would advise students and staff members not to establish a relationship with homeless people because there is some element of danger involved.
“We are concerned about the potential for various kinds of assault and acting out,” May said.
Police often take homeless individuals to various area shelters, including the Salvation Army facility near downtown Minneapolis. As for other outreach activities, the department does not involve itself.
“If the University wanted (homeless people), they’d build a shelter here,” May said.
Shelters like Mary’s Place, built by anti-poverty crusader Mary Jo Copeland, and People Serving People are designed to help families get back on their feet and off the street. The Salvation Army and some of the private shelters cater more to single people.
Beckham said she only wants to be in the shelters long enough to find a job and a better life for herself and her son. She has already enrolled in classes to work as a medical technician.
She said that living in shelters and on welfare is a crutch for so many people. She herself has been on and off state aid for 15 years, since her oldest son was born. Nevertheless, she said she wants to make her own way and not have to depend on welfare anymore.
“You want your own money,” Beckham said. “It sucks waiting for that check each month.”
Beckham said she appreciates programs in Hennepin County which help those who are poverty-stricken get job training and quality housing. “There’s no reason for people to not take advantage of those things,” she said.
Steve, a man living in a shelter who moved his family from Kalamazoo, Mich. about four months ago, said he moved to Minneapolis because life is safer and there are more job opportunities. He heard about the People Serving People shelter from a friend.
He and his family found a house to rent when they first arrived, but it was in such poor repair that he reported the landlord to housing officials, Steve said.
The landlord then accused Steve of selling drugs.
“They were looking for a way to get us out because we called housing on him,” Steve said.
However, things are looking up, he said. He found a job and now he and his wife are trying to find another place to live.
“I’m going to try and stick it out here,” he said. “I’m making this my new home.”