Students camp out to raise awareness of homelessness

Jason Juno

By day, the inside portion of the Washington Avenue Bridge provides a warm place to walk and mingle.

By night, however, homeless people seek that warmth.

To better understand the lives of homeless people, the University’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity went to the bridge Thursday night. They stayed there from 10 p.m. to dawn, drinking coffee, surrounded by cardboard boxes.

Kristen Denzer, president of the charity’s University chapter, said the goal was to make people more aware of homelessness.

Political science senior Austin Miller said the night gave him a taste of what it’s like to be homeless, spending less than an hour indoors during one of the first cold nights of the season.

“It makes me realize how rough it is,” he said, his breath forming clouds as he talked. “I may not make it through the night, (but) they don’t have the option. I live like a mile away from here – I can just go home.”

Myths and causes

Miller said one reason the chapter hosted the night was to deter myths of homelessness.

One myth is that most homeless people do not have jobs, he said.

Ellen Shelton, of the Wilder Research Center in St. Paul, said approximately 30 percent of homeless people have jobs, according to a 2003 survey. She said those people might not make enough to pay for rent.

Denzer said the lack of affordable housing in the city also causes homelessness. She said high city taxes plus housing in the area is “very expensive.”

According to a 2003 Wilder Research Center survey, homeless adults surveyed said lack of affordable housing is the most common reason for homelessness.

Approximately a third of homeless women reported domestic violence as a factor of homelessness, she said.

A high percentage of homeless people have mental health and chronic physical problems, Shelton said. The percentage is also high for substance abuse and brain injuries.

Shelter

Amanda Jackson, a homelessness-prevention advocate for Person to Person in Minneapolis, said Hennepin County charges people to stay in shelters if they have any money.

Meanwhile, shelter-providers said federal, state and local budget cuts hurt their ability

to give service. Approximately 73 percent of the shelters in

the study had to turn people away. Two-thirds of those said they were turning people away more often than in previous months. The survey was taken in August and September of 2003.

The State Legislature also passed a bill that reduces welfare payments if a person also gets housing subsidies, she said.

Getting help is another problem. Jackson said homelessness is not easy to recover from.

Some homeless people need to learn skills to live independently, and others face mental health or substance-abuse problems, Jackson said. And once they get the funds to live on their own, emergencies such as a sick child can derail their progress, Jackson said.