OUR STORIES | Losing a home, finding help in St. Paul

“Time for breakfast, fellas,” is the typical 6:30 lights on/wake-up at Union Gospel Mission, home of Bethel Hotel and many services for men who are homeless.

Bethel Hotel at the Union Gospel Mission (UGM) has been Alan Grafing’s home for eight months. A friend recommended UGM when Alan lost his apartment. Like so many, the spiral quickly went from losing his job to losing his apartment. For $6 a night, he reserves a "paid bed" in a room with 33 other men. This is an alternative to a free bed, which dictates an "in-bed" curfew of 9:30 p.m., among other specific requirements, or a private room at a cost of roughly $180 to $200. For a weekly fee, a shelter resident can rent a locker. Some men use their cars to hold their possessions while others may carry their possessions with them throughout the day.

Life for Alan was once as normal as anyone’s: one of two brothers with two sisters, mother, and his father in the Navy. One sister is now in Colorado and the other in Wisconsin; his brother and parents have all died of cancer. Alan is an Army paratrooper vet and has been divorced for five years. He had been working in Mankato and caring for his ill mother. After his mother died, he moved to the Twin Cities so he wouldn’t have to commute to see his son. He found a job in the Twin Cities, but was let go after two months.

A year later he lost his apartment after trying to hang on while job-hunting, the futility eating through his 401K and unemployment. He went to court, attempting to keep his apartment. His apartment management stored his belongings as long as possible as Alan could not afford storage; since then the property manager has been kind enough to continue storing photos and other very personal items until Alan gets on his feet. The heartache of losing family heirlooms and keepsakes reflects in Alan’s face.

“Aid policies need to be in place so people are not forced into foreclosure or into losing an apartment [in harsh financial situations]," he said. "I applied for assistance to keep my apartment, but not in time. The court gave me a week to get the money needed, with the expectation that I knew people - friends or relatives- with money. A court-related call to the landlord could have helped; I was short of help by one week...just one week.

“My son (eight years old) worries about me. A child should not have to worry about a parent. We visit on the weekend, keep in touch. I had been calling every three days, lately every day. It’s God who did the work. God’s grace is what made it happen – so quickly. Two months ago God pushed me to the VA. I walked into my first appointment knowing something had to change. I was told by an intake worker that I hadn’t been homeless long enough – a year. He called two days later, after having made some calls…told me I’d have a voucher from the Metropolitan Council for an apartment. Getting connected to HUD-VASH was a God-send. One application did so much. The presence of God has kept me on a [positive] path.”

Alan summarizes his experience: “My son will always come first. With my own apartment again, he can have daddy cook for him. I’ve learned that rent will always be paid first. I want my child to be happy…Legos…I put the Legos together, he played with them – we both had fun…but the rent needs to be paid first; and I want to cook for my son. I have learned frugality in purchasing food, things for my son. I’ve learned the difference between needs and wants. If it wasn’t for my son, I would have had a different path and it scared me to think what could have been.”

Alan summarized his experience with Union Gospel Mission saying, “It’s a natural fit for me; I’m a spiritual person, and UGM has a lot of programs that can help.” If a person has a free bed rather than a paid room, a few of the programs UGM offers are required. Others are very helpful, but optional:

  • Gateway: Helps men recently out of prison, including help finding transitional housing;
  • Up and Out: Helps men earn their GED;
  • Anger Management;
  • Budgeting classes.

“A social worker, employed by UGM is present and available every day,” notes Alan, “as well as two or three interns and they are easy to access. A podiatry group offers foot care help monthly, for any foot related problems including foot massages. Health and dental care are offered on the premises, by East Side Clinic, Dr. Como, and dental students. They give the best of dental care. UGM helps men to get their lives back on track, with God in it.”

Alan, with other men from the Mission and Dorothy Day, enjoys the fellowship and computer access they find at Metropolitan State University and the co-existing Dayton’s Bluff branch of the Saint Paul Public Library. Other options for shelter residents, who have to be physically out of the shelter for most of the day, are the downtown Passport, which is for those 50 years plus; the Union Depot, which has Wi-Fi; riding the city bus to Minneapolis for the Central Library, the Veterans Administration, “and, unfortunately, downtown Saint Paul where drugs are easily available.”

Internet access and fellowship are very important – recreation often consists of watching movies on phones. UGM has no computers; people must have their own laptops and then sign a waiver in order to access the internet. Basketball and football are the usual TV fare in the common room at Bethel.

When asked how he sees people getting out of homelessness, Alan considered: “Start by recognizing ‘need’ versus ‘want.’" A person needs reliable transportation and a steady job. The city bus is the most common transportation for shelter residents. Alan, like some, has a car, though it needs work to be reliable. Housing and transportation are two critical elements in getting a job and stabilizing one’s life. Frafing noted that [homeless] people who have cars are working more than those who don’t.

Alan had promised his son that he would be out of shelter in eight months. He would have realized his priorities much sooner, he mused, if he had been in touch with the VA sooner. Knowing what resources are out there, knowing what organizations are available to help, are key. Once he connected to the VA things really moved along.

“Being homeless is life-altering, life-changing. Some people lose their sense of pride somewhere, or don’t care. Not all who are homeless are lazy. A couple of bad breaks and we’re forced out of our homes. Some of us are good workers.”

Note: Since this writing, Alan has found full-time employment and is looking forward to finding an apartment where he can cook for his son.

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sage holben's picture
Sage Holben

Sage Holben (uppelto [at] gmail [dot] com) is a freelance writer who lives in Dayton’s Bluff, St. Paul.