The invisible side of homelessness

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Nine thousand three hundred and twelve: the number of adults, youth and children in Minnesota who were living without a home on Oct. 22, 2015, as part of a one-night statewide Wilder Research study to better understand homelessness. In 2012, it was estimated there are over 40,000 people in Minnesota who experience homelessness over the course of a full year. I’ve been volunteering at St. Stephen’s Emergency Men’s Shelter in Minneapolis every Friday for a few months. This has very much challenged my bias and understanding of unhoused communities.

Homelessness can affect anyone. Many of us are familiar with visible homelessness; individuals who are standing on busy street intersections asking for help in the form of money, food or other basic necessities. However, we often don’t choose to see the other, invisible side of homelessness. While visible homelessness is present at the shelter, if you saw many of the men I’ve met, on the street, you would be surprised to find out that they are sleeping in a shelter.

Just like you or me, men at the shelter work, go to school and have families.

I’ve seen men of many different nationalities, ethnicities and cultures play and teach each other card games, complete puzzles and eat together. I saw a young adult man from the Northside of Minneapolis caring for an elderly man from rural Wisconsin, helping him walk up the stairs, grabbing him a plate of food, and helping him get into his bed at night. I’ve seen two complete strangers, one man helping another man recover from the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, checking on him every hour to make sure he is doing okay. Regardless of our differences, everyone at the shelter learns from and supports one another as if it were home.

 

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One thing remains constant at the shelter: poverty. In some cases, extreme poverty. Many men lack basic necessities like underwear, socks and shaving razors. Other men, who have more of a discretionary income from employment, own cell phones, computers, and iPads, but are not able to cover the steep cost of living in the Twin Cities. Many of these men, and tens of millions of people around the country are one paycheck away from losing everything. According to a national survey by bankrate.com this past year, 63 percent of people said they don’t have the savings to cover a $500 car repair or $1,000 medical or dental bill.

Our society has created these conditions that put millions of people at risk. For example, in 2011, only 36 percent of low-income renters in Minnesota with unaffordable housing (over 30 percent of income) were receiving federal rental assistance. In contrast, in the U.S. during 2009, 82 percent of the mortgage interest deduction (39 billion) went to households in the top 20 percent income bracket (Wilder Research, Minnesota Homeless Study, 2012). Thus, our federal housing policy has disproportionately benefited the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the safety net of America’s most vulnerable individuals and families.

Our past and current social and economic policies have created two separate and unequal worlds, and there is little personal interaction between the two. We feed off stereotypes that have been passed down from generation to generation or that we have created in our social networks.

Let’s foster a more equal community.

One with similar access to wealth, resources and power. One where we are truly integrated; we live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same schools and shop at the same grocery stores. We would be more likely to interact and create long lasting bonds and friendships with those outside our social networks.

One man I’ve worked with staying in the shelter said he liked to come and socialize with the staff, volunteers and other men because people on the “outside” treated him like dirt. Let’s prove him wrong. The next time you see someone having a rough day, I challenge you to smile, nod your head and let go of all of preconceived judgement. Have a conversation. This is the first, and most crucial step to eliminating harmful stereotypes that prevent us from uniting as one people.

If you would like to volunteer or donate to the St. Stephen’s Human Services Shelter please contact the Volunteer coordinator, Tess Gehring at 612-879-7627 or e-mail her at tgehring@ststephensmpls.org.

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