MN VOICES | Mikkel Beckmen finds dignity and poetry at St. Stephen’s homeless shelter in Minneapolis

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I sat down to talk with Mikkel Beckmen, executive director of St. Stephen’s Human Services, in the midst of the organization’s move to its new site at 2309 Nicollet Avenue.  Staff people bustled to get ready for the office’s big re-opening on July 5th.  Despite the myriad responsibilities his position requires, especially with a big move on the horizon, Beckmen gave the impression of being someone who always has time for people who need his help (writers included).

Beckmen started working in a homeless shelter 22 years ago as a film student looking for a part-time job.  He had recently returned from working in London, and previously had been a graduate student in poetry and literature.  He remembers wanting a position that would be both in line with his values and allow him to spend time with people.  The first shelter where he worked hosted 50 men a night.

“Just being there to provide for folks’ immediate needs; being able to offer a safe, warm, fairly quiet place was significant,” he said. “They were mostly end-stage alcoholics, many of them combat veterans from the Korean Conflict and Vietnam who had been on the streets for a long, long time.  This was one of the few places they were welcome anywhere in the world.”  

Ever since this time, Beckmen has worked in some capacity to serve people experiencing homelessness. He has supervised a special needs shelter, been an integral part of creating supportive housing developments in the metro, served as assistant administrator of homeless services for Catholic Charities, and worked for the Corporation for Supportive Housing to assist communities all over the state in building housing with support for homeless, disabled people.  Seven years ago said became the Executive Director of St. Stephen’s.  Since then, the organization has grown significantly, necessitating the move to a larger location.  Beckmen says he was drawn to this position because, “the culture here is one of deep dignity; it’s very community focused, very grassroots.  It’s just my style.  There’s a poetry to St. Stephen’s that I really appreciate.”

This poetry is something that grows out of the practice of recognizing the humanity of people experiencing homelessness and trying to, as Mikkel says, “meet them where they’re at.”  He explains that, “Homeless people aren’t different than anybody else, other than homelessness typically isn’t something that happens to everybody.  It happens to poor people.  The main reason people are homeless is that the math doesn’t work.  Their incomes are so low that there is nowhere they can live.”  While St. Stephen’s does provide direct emergency assistance to people in need, their broader focus in on creating systemic changes to eradicate homelessness in the metro.

A native of the Uptown area, Beckmen remembers, “When I was a freshman in high school there were no homeless shelters in Minneapolis.  There were a couple skid row missions.  But it really is a recent phenomenon and it’s created through the mismatch of resources with housing availability.  That’s all it is.  It’s an easily solvable problem.  I mean yes, there’s a cost to everything.  But the cost of doing nothing is greater than the cost of trying to end this problem, which is our mission.”  He explains that many systemic factors come together to create homelessness on the scale it exists today—the federal government withdrawing money from housing assistance programs in the early 1980s,  wages not keeping up with housing costs, and the inability of the marketplace to provide affordable rental units.  

Beckmen believes that working with people experiencing homelessness has helped him recognize the value of accepting people as they are.  He remembers one man in particular, who was living in a bush at the time telling him, “We’re all cracked vessels.  We all have things to work on. I just happen to not have a home because I can’t afford one.” Beckmen continued, “And it reminded me that we are. I mean there’s probably as much drug and alcohol use on the campus of any university as there is in a shelter, if not more.  And there’s probably people at every income level and class level that struggle with mental health issues or medical issues that make their lives difficult.  But these are folks with an income to pay for housing and probably enough family support and a network.  That makes a big difference.  I know I can go to people in my life if I am in trouble.  I wish that everybody had that in their life.  But a lot of time people don’t have anybody in their corner.  And so we try to be in people’s corner.”

Aside from his work with St. Stephen’s, Beckmen plays the washboard with several local bands, spends time with his family enjoying the city’s parks, and exploring the cities’ culinary offerings. 

To conclude, Beckmen wants people to know, “ If you are approached by a homeless person, you don’t have to do anything for them but you can wish them well and look them in the eye and that’s enough sometimes.”