Homeless shelter

Sascha Matuszak

Latanya Dobbs was hoping that a Valentine’s Day party staged by People Serving People, a downtown shelter for homeless families, would allow her children to have fun while she relaxed.
That was not entirely how it turned out.
Her children had fun, but she did not do much relaxing on Friday night.
People Serving People hosted a Valentine’s bash for the children of the residents on Friday with the intention of taking mothers’ and fathers’ minds off of apartments, welfare checks and money, and focusing them instead on having a little fun with the kids.
As Dobbs’ son, Chris, played with the photographer’s camera and showed off his facepaintings, she spoke about the shelter.
“If you got somewhere to go, you’re happy to leave this place,” she said. “This is just something to pass the time.”
Latanya’s son, Albert Dobbs, was pleased with the whole situation.
“Finally we have something for us to do, instead of sitting in the room and being bored,” he said.
Dobbs was in the seventh grade in St. Cloud, Minn., but has yet to start school in Minneapolis.
“My records haven’t transferred yet,” he said.
Her three children and three she was watching scampered through the basement of the People Serving People building on Fourth Avenue and 10th Street, in search of facepainting artists, root beer floats and free books, while she tried to keep control of the situation.
“How long does this last?” Dobbs eventually asked a friend, as both of the women chuckled over their respective broods.
Her kids disappeared into the activity room, the center of the buzz later on in the evening, keeping Kelly Oltman quite busy.
“It’s a pretty free-for-all kind of thing,” said Oltman, who helps run the children’s activities.
While 6-year-old Cierra Guytoen passed the time making a book for her family, Albert speculated about his future housing situation.
“I’ll be out soon, give it a week,” he said.
Volunteers from St. Cloud, involved in a Youth Services program, were swamped with facepainting requests from more than 80 children, while the Gamma Gamma Sigma sorority of St. Thomas served root beer floats and took family portraits.
“The kids always want their face painted,” said Andria Morgan, director of the People Serving People children’s program. “These events are a good time for the kids to have some fun, so the events are usually packed.”
Morgan said events such as these bring in anywhere from 80 to 200 children. Every holiday, People Serving People holds an event for the residents of the shelter, which usually number around 275, Morgan said.
People Serving People provided meals and a place to stay for almost 4,000 children last year, with 56 percent of them between the ages of 6 and 11.
“We have had a lot of people come through here,” she said.
The kids and their families come and go, over the years, she said, some staying for a week, others for five.
Sita Powell, a long-time volunteer at the shelter, brought reinforcements from Macalester College, where Powell is an education and psychology major, to help direct the flow of kids and organize the various volunteers.
“Before I came here, I was positive I wanted to be a teacher, but now, I feel I could do this, too,” she said.
That sounded good to Roger Driver, who brought four of his 14 children to the Valentine’s gala.
His kids snatched up books and sucked down floats as he explained the whereabouts of his other 10 children.
“They’re all grown,” he said. “One just got out of college, one has been working for the Chicago (District Attorney’s office) for the past four years, and one was a special color guard for (former president) George Bush.”
Driver said he was “just between stops” here at the shelter, and was on the hunt for an apartment.
People Serving People sprung into being when an abandoned wing of the Drake Hotel was taken over, in 1983, by seven recovering alcoholics and three staff members.
They cleaned and renovated the building and began providing food and shelter for many of the homeless people of the Twin Cities.
When Federal Aid for single men was put to a stop, People Serving People began focusing their resources on families.
Families do not receive welfare while staying here, which is a strong incentive to leave.
“It’s a good system, it really works,” said Tianna Holmes. “We want to help get them out of here, and they want to leave as soon as possible.”
Driver and Dobbs both were looking for apartments, and they were not alone.
One woman declared her desire to work while another described a day in the life:
“Sitting on the phone looking for apartments, and being bored,” she said.
Still, most of the residents were as optimistic as Albert Dobbs about the length of their stay at People Serving People.
“I’ll be out in about a week,” Driver said.