No place to call home

As the temperature drops, the homeless are left in the cold.

by Brian Reinken

The first snowfall of the season sparks powerful emotions in the hearts of all Minnesotans — not least of all the homeless. While many of us northerners pride ourselves in surviving some of the harshest winters the United States can produce, not all of us can be so confident in our ability to weather the cold.

For those without a permanent place to live, the first snowfall marks the beginning of a desperate struggle to survive. Being homeless anywhere is terrible. Being homeless in a state whose climate can be fatal for much of the year is even worse.

About 10,214 people were homeless in Minnesota last year, according to a Wilder Research study. Of these, more than 3,500 were children. Although the growth rate of Minnesotan homelessness has slowed, the current homeless population is the largest it’s been since 1991.

Hennepin County mirrors the trend, and the number of homeless families is at a 10-year high. The county spent $9.3 million on homeless shelters in 2012, and the number of chronically homeless people has dropped, but residual effects of the economic recession are still being felt.

Unsurprisingly, homeless shelters are typically busiest in the winter, when freezing temperatures can be dangerous for anyone trapped on the street overnight. It’s common for shelters to overflow; the Dorothy Day shelter in St. Paul reportedly houses between 175 and 200 people each night, sending up to 40 others to a nearby building.

Last year’s cold weather was particularly difficult for homeless people and shelters alike, with bitter temperatures lasting until May. In north Minneapolis, community members around an overflow shelter complained of public urination, drug use and aggressive behavior from residents. The community strongly opposed the overflow shelter as it tried to open for another year.

But it would be wrong to think of the homeless as a faceless “other.” The Free Application for Federal Student Aid reports there are 58,000 homeless college students in the U.S. It would be naive to assume none of those students attend the University of Minnesota.

A University issue

Homelessness affects the University in other ways, too. Because most University buildings are heated and open to the public, homeless people often take refuge inside them when temperatures fall. University police often escort them to a nearby shelter.

But it’s more difficult to remove the homeless people who remain outside of campus buildings, like around the West Bank or the Washington Avenue Bridge.

Of course, escorting the homeless away doesn’t solve the problem on an individual or communal level. It’s wrong to think of these people merely as public nuisances that must be hidden from sight. Fortunately, the University has a few student groups dedicated to easing the struggle faced by the homeless.

The Inter-Professional Street Outreach Project provides health care, education and referrals to the homeless. Meals for Minneapolis takes a grassroots-style approach. The group hosts monthly fundraisers to raise money for sandwiches and bag lunches that are donated to local homeless shelters.

These groups should be commended for their efforts, but some problems facing the homeless are less tangible. Exiled from the mainstream community, homeless people are often treated as though they are invisible — that is, they’re not treated at all. Imagine going for days, weeks or months without hearing anyone say your name.

I’m not suggesting everyone stop and donate all their money to every homeless person that they encounter. Certainly, I am as guilty of passing them by as anybody else. But small, human gestures — a smile and maybe a word or two — can make a difference to those who are so often left out in the cold.