Families Without Homes

The work of rebuilding lives

In a report released this year, the Wilder Research Center estimated that 15,759 Minnesotans are homeless or precariously housed. These men, women, and children were living "doubled up" with others, or in shelters, transitional housing, or on the streets. In response to increases in homelessness, St. Stephen's Church of Minneapolis has opened five programs for the homeless over the past twenty years, which in the last decade have focused more on homeless families. Here, Minnesota Parenttakes a look at two of these programs: Job and Employment Readiness, and Housing Services Programs.

 

From Tragedy to the Streets

Bonita and William had to get out of Milwaukee. William's twenty-two-year-old son Monty died in a car crash after a police chase, and the funeral and burial exhausted their savings. Bonita could no longer bear to stay in the apartment where Monty's memory lingered like a ghost. So the couple gathered up a few belongings, and with their ten-year-old daughter, twelve-year-old son, $50, and some food stamps, they got on a bus and moved to Minneapolis. "I bragged to my children what a wonderful place Minneapolis was," said William, who had been to the Cities before for work, removing asbestos insulation from old buildings. "I had no idea moving here was going to be mission impossible."

And three months and four shelters later, it was beginning to seem that way. They had figured it wouldn't take long to get on their feet. While Bonita, an industrial seamstress by trade, is disabled with a spinal lipoma, William has worked for most of his forty-seven years. "We don't have U.D.s [eviction records], we don't have criminal records, we are good people, and we want to give our kids a better life."

Unfortunately for William and Bonita, it's becoming more difficult for low-income families like theirs to find and keep housing in the Twin Cities. According to the Wilder Research Center, the number of homeless and precariously housed persons in Minnesota about doubled between 1991 and 1997. Also in that time, the number of homeless with full-time work has doubled, and the number receiving government benefits like food stamps and Medical Assistance has dropped. These trends indicate that a job is no guarantee of housing anymore. As one homeless father of three puts it, "In Chicago, there was housing but no work--here, there is work but no housing."

 

St. Stephen's Programs

St. Stephen's Church has been in the business of housing the homeless since 1981, when they first opened a shelter for homeless men in the basement of their Whittier Neighborhood Church. Since that time, the demographics of homelessness has shifted considerably in the Twin Cities, and St. Stephen's has opened new programs to meet new needs. In the 1980s, single, adult men comprised the largest group of homeless adults in Minnesota, but today women outnumber men and there are almost as many homeless children as men and women combined. In the metro area there has been a nine-fold increase in homeless children in this decade alone.

Homeless children represent homeless families. St. Stephen's has responded to increases in homelessness among families by creating programs that address the needs of parents. In the 1990s, they started their Employment and Job Readiness Program and their Housing Services Program. According to Sue Roedl, program director and caseworker, most St. Stephen's clients who are parents have two case managers: one for jobs and one for housing.

 

Jobs

"The job training program helps folks stabilize their lives," says Sue. "Steady employment guarantees rent and provides a structure for the children." Janice, who grew up in Minneapolis, is a case in point. "I worked in the laundry at the Radisson, and my boyfriend didn't work. We had two kids when we were first evicted for falling behind on rent. That's when we first went to the shelter. It was always on my shoulders to pay rent and put food on the table."

Thus began a cycle of evictions and shelter stays for Janice and her family. She had five children when Audrey Preston from St. Stephen's Housing Services helped her get furniture and move from a shelter into an apartment. "She asked me why I didn't go to school," said Janice. "I said I was too dumb. Audrey referred me to St. Stephen's Job Service Program where Sue convinced me to take a college-placement test.

"We do a lot of things we don't have to do," says Sue. "We try to take a small case load so we can provide life-skills training and emotional support." St. Stephen's will work with about 120 people this year through their Employment and Job Readiness Program. This helps clients find the schooling and training they need to make a living wage (while, in many cases, raising a family). It also helps clients land jobs, and provides ongoing mediation between employee and employer, if that's needed.

According to Sue, Janice was struggling with five kids, a low-paying job, and an abusive boyfriend who didn't work regularly. "Sue is totally supportive of me," says Janice. "She is a friend. St. Stephen's helps with bills sometimes, and I come to a class for single women once a week. I like having that support. Now I go to Minneapolis Community College, and I'm getting a 4.0 average. When I get my associate's degree, I want to work with battered women in shelters."

 

Getting Families Out of Shelters

Housing homeless families became a high priority for Minnesota state government in the 1990s, and justifiably so. Researchers at Columbia University concluded that half the kids in shelters have chronic health problems. Over forty percent have asthma or other respiratory problems. The rate of ulcers and other gastrointestinal problems among shelter kids is three times that of the population at large. The rate of diabetes is more than ten times higher, and the rate of tuberculosis is 100 times higher. It's clear that living in shelters is physically and emotionally stressful.

Unfortunately, shelters are difficult to exit without help. The county-funded shelters cost $25.66 per person per day. That includes infants. This means a family of five will pay more than $125 a day to stay in a shelter. If they can't afford this, all the earnings and benefits they do receive will be taken over by the shelter, and the shortfall will be made up by the county.

With these fees, it's tough for clients who do make money to save enough to get out. Perhaps as importantly, there is little incentive to get work for adults who are stuck with families in shelters. At the wage rate most shelter residents can expect to receive, their entire check will be taken over by the shelter. According to Audrey, escaping the shelters is particularly difficult for new arrivals. "People from out of state are not eligible for benefits until day thirty-one here. Consequently, they come to the shelter, they don't have any money saved, they don't have any resources, they don't know anybody, they're stuck."

Under Minnesota's Family Homeless Prevention Act of 1994, money became available to agencies like St. Stephen's to work with the county in getting people out of the shelters. "Hennepin County gave some flexibility on how agencies do this, as long as they got the job done," says Sue. Many agencies rely on supervised, transitional-housing programs to get people out of the shelters. These may keep residents from getting into trouble, but do not provide experience in successful independent living.

"The St. Stephen's approach has been to help people find permanent housing and give them a lot of support in the transition time," says Sue. "We teach individuals to be good tenants in the places they're going to live permanently." St. Stephen's will place about 100 families and 100 singles in apartments this year. By concentrating resources on placement and support, they avoid the problem of clients becoming stuck in or dependent on transitional housing. "The problem with transitional housing is that sometimes there is no place to go when your time is up," says Sue.

Through public and private grants, St. Stephen's is able to help clients with housing-related costs. They will cosign leases, help clients financially in times of need, and work closely with clients and landlords, which has helped build up a network of landlords who prefer to rent to St. Stephen's clients. This trust is important when trying to place clients who have poor or no rental histories. But still, the list of housing applicants is long compared to the list of available housing.

 

The Workers

Audrey Preston has spent twenty-eight of her fifty years working in the chemical dependency field. She transferred her skills into homeless advocacy with St. Stephen's when she moved here from Chicago. "My daughter had been in a homeless shelter before. I sent her here to Minneapolis with her kids when she could no longer stay with her abusive husband in Illinois. When I finally saw the shelter she stayed in, tears jumped into my eyes. If I had known what the conditions were, I wouldn't have encouraged her to come."

Now Audrey does her best to find apartments for single adults and families. But low-income housing continues to be replaced by upscale apartment buildings and office parks. African Americans and other minority groups frequently face discrimination by landlords. Migrants from other cites have gotten a bad reputation, according to Audrey, because Minneapolis landlords have different standards for acceptable tenant behavior.

"In Chicago, where I came from, as long as you pay your rent, they don't care if you move a gorilla up inside your house," says Audrey. "That's not the case here. There are very strict guidelines and rules that people from out of state don't know about." These rules include restrictions on how many people may live in the apartment, how much noise the tenants may make, and even expectations on how long children may be left in the apartment unattended. Since most of Audrey's clients are from out of state, her job becomes that much more difficult. "Our agency has a pretty good catch of landlords," says Audrey. "But even many of those don't want to take people who are from out of town. I might have to go through twenty to thirty clients just to get seven or eight placements. The others go back to the shelters or where they came from."

People who come through the St. Stephen's programs frequently have had difficulties with abusive relationships, poor health, drugs, or some other life challenge that makes finding and holding apartments difficult. "Between housing placement and job placement, housing is a hundred times more difficult," says Sue. " With a job you've got to keep it together for eight hours a day. With housing you've got to keep it together twenty-four hours a day."

 

It Can Work if You Work It

Bridget was sixteen and a high school student in Chicago when she became pregnant. At seventeen she had dropped out of school, married the father of her child, and became pregnant with a second child. She left her husband and moved back in with her mother when her husband began seeing other women. "I thought I was in love," says Bridget, "but things weren't going as planned." Then her mother died when Bridget was twenty-one, and her husband kidnapped her kids and took them to Minneapolis. Bridget turned to drugs.

She was a heavy user of cocaine and alcohol when Anne, a reformed addict, adopted her from the streets of Chicago. Anne told Bridget she was too beautiful to do this to herself. In a year Bridget moved to Minneapolis, where she entered a drug treatment program and was able to reclaim her kids. At first she and the kids lived in the shelters and with friends and relatives, but St. Stephen's has helped her to find an apartment and has gotten her into a GED program. "It lifts me up to be getting my GED," says Bridget. Her kids are already doing better in school under the influence of a more stable home life.

 

The Work Goes On

"Tonight over 9,000 children will be homeless in Minnesota," declares a recent publication of Minnesota Coalition of the Homeless. These children, with or without parents, will be staying with friends, relatives, in shelters, or wherever they can. Homelessness affects their emotional and physical health, and influences their future prospects in work, in relationships, and in life. St. Stephen's and other agencies are doing their best to help families break the cycle of poverty and homelessness, but the work isn't easy.

The massive exodus of high-paying industrial employers from U.S. cities in the second part of this century has left millions of families across the nation without living-wage work. This contributes to the dissolution of inner-city communities and families, and to the societal ill of homelessness. Building affordable housing is part of the solution, but equally important is helping people with shattered lives rebuild themselves. As Minneapolis and St. Paul struggle to revitalize and repopulate their inner-city neighborhoods, the work of St. Stephen's and similar agencies becomes especially vital.

 

David Griffin is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer, and a frequent contributor toMinnesota Parent. His article about the recent rise of the ancient practice of labyrinth-walking appeared in our November, 1998 issue.

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