Listening to homeless people in St. Paul


On a cool autumn evening in 2004, Albert found himself face-down at gun point. That’s when he vowed to leave Chicago and the past that, he says, plagued him.

The 28-year-old is a self-proclaimed modern-day vagabond, having lived in more than eight cities in three years. In a June interview, he called St. Paul’s streets his home, and Listening House his “saving grace.”

“I came up here for a job opportunity in IT work, but when I was laid-off I had nothing,” Albert said. “I’ve been coming to Listening House ever since. They treat us like kings here. I can’t get tea and crumpets anywhere else.”

Listening House is a day and evening shelter that serves a diverse population of single, adult men and women. Its original mission stated, “Don’t preach, don’t fix, just listen.” And since its founding in 1983, Listening House has been dubbed “the living room for the homeless,” said Executive Director Rosemarie Reger-Rumsey.

She said that its founders based their approach on what they saw working on the streets.

“We’ve spent a lot of time just listening to the homeless,” she said. “It’s vital in making people feel valued and accepted.”

In December, Listening House celebrated its 25th anniversary. Originally located on St. Peter Street, Listening House relocated to its current address, the Catholic Charities Mary Hall building at 215 Ninth Street West, in 1996.

“The space itself is a jumble of mismatched furniture, but it’s comfy and warm, so it is home,” Albert said. “It’s nice to just sit back for a bit and clear your mind from the clutter of life.”

The video below was created by Listening House for its 25th anniversary.

Willing to Listen from Listening House on Vimeo.

Reger-Rumsey said that about 200 individuals are served daily at Listening House, which is a 40 percent increase from five years ago.

Listening House offers services from hygiene care and a sock exchange program to a mailing address and telephone contact for potential landlords and employers. It is a participant in Twin City Voice Mail, and Listening House staff manages 36 voice mail boxes, which provides a way to receive messages without having to disclose the status of being homeless, Reger-Rumsey said.

For many, homelessness is a result of unemployment. Reger-Rumsey said that Listening House is intended to prepare its guests for the next step – employment and housing.

“No one is going to hire you if you don’t have a way to be contacted. [Listening House] really provides so many needs that we don’t often receive,” Albert said. “I am hoping to become a teacher one day.”

Reger-Rumsey said that volunteers and loyal workers keep Listening House alive. Last year, Listening House had a staff of eight and 126 volunteers, including 90 adults and 36 students. Reger-Rumsey said that an 87-year-old barber, volunteer Ken Powell, has been cutting hair at Listening House weekly for more than 20 years.

“It’s those individuals that truly make our lives better,” Albert said. “I experienced a life-altering crisis and I guess I haven’t been able to pick myself up from poverty, but I am trying. Lord knows I am trying.”

Albert said he came to Listening House every day to chat, laugh and escape the cold in winter. “Listening House offers a safe environment to go about our lives,” he said.

“There is a lot of conflict between people who come here because most have lost a lot in life and think nobody understands their pressures and pains,” he said. “But, the staff really works to make sure tensions are low.”

Reger-Rumsey said one rule is inviolate: Respect. There are consequences for offenses, as little as 10 minutes outside for use of profanity to as great as an indefinite ban if someone becomes violent or engages in drug dealing.

“The best way to be fair and equitable is to be respectful,” she said.

Albert said he stays away from conflicts at Listening House.“God is my inspiration and best friend. I have been granted a second chance at life and I’m not going to see that disappear because someone pisses me off.”

A friend snickers as Albert continues to speak. “He’s kind of like a street disciple,” said Tony Criss, a fellow Chicagoan and Listening House guest.

“I try to acknowledge God in every way,” Albert said. “I’m a pastor, really. What I mean is that I try to preach His Word as much as I can. I’m not ordained but I try to give hope and blessings to others.”

“Before I left Chicago I felt like I was running into a brick wall over and over again,” he said. “I came into the world as a homeless person, but I’m not going to leave as one.”

Homelessness and its associated “pressures and pains” take their toll on everyone. Before this article was ready for publication, Albert had left Listening House and St. Paul.

Anissa Stocks is an intern at the TC Daily Planet.

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