A Minneapolis family: From $62,000 a year in income to homeless


Gregory Ellis starts his days at the front desk of People Serving People, a multi-story brownstone near the Metrodome that offers up shelter to homeless families. 

It’s there he picks up his family’s daily quota of diapers, 10, as well as juice and milk – enough to tide three kids over till meal times. Upstairs, in a plain but oversize hotel-kind-of-room with fantastic cityscape views, his wife Waukisha and their three children get ready for another day.

Not his own place yet, not home that room, Ellis tells me, but a hopeful stop on the way to better times.

Community Sketchbook focuses on the economic and social challenges facing communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color, and how people are trying to address them.

It is made possible by support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Minneapolis Foundation, and some Minneapolis Foundation donor advisors.

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A dark-eyed, sincere man, 41-year-old Ellis struggles to explain how they came to this. “You can’t live in a tent. You don’t live under a viaduct,” he said, a proud man striving still to understand how a family that once made $62,000 a year ended up homeless in Minneapolis.

Waukisha once worked at MCI Bank, Greg was a chef at Doolittles and they owned two cars, he said. Now the very pillows they sleep on are borrowed, they travel by bus in search of free clothes, and send out dozens of employment resumes a week. Still, they can’t find work to support themselves.

The Ellises are five people in the sea of an estimated 13,100 homeless any given night in Minnesota, according to Wilder Research. One recent sunny October Monday they shared their day, letting photographer Peter Koeleman and me follow along in the shelter and on the streets with their children Malachi, 4, Gabriel, 2, and Faith, 1.

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A place for sleeping
We meet the rest of the family upstairs, greeted by Malachi with affectionate hugs around our knees, shy looks from his younger brother and sister, a warm handshake from Waukisha.

“We’re living a circus every day,” confides 32-year-old Waukisha with a small laugh. “When you’re homeless, planning your day is three times more challenging,” she said, especially with children.

Their room is their haven, the Ellises say: oversize, private and with its own bathroom and shower. At its center are their beds, all pushed together into one, wide family bed neatly covered with mismatched quilts.

Opposite stand bookshelves where diapers, a few clothes and sparse other belongings are stacked neatly. The Bible lies open on a small nightstand. Outside their window the sun shines in a turquoise sky on people going about their work days.

Inside, fascinated with Peter’s cameras, young Malachi begs to shoot, a petition Peter obliges before the boy’s parents distract him with a bucket of Legos – which he promptly dumps on the floor for play.

Heading out of the room, Malachi more escapes than leaves, like a bumble bee set free from a jar. 

A journey
The Ellises say their journey from homelessness headed a positive direction Sept. 8 when they came to the PSP residence on south Third Street in downtown Minneapolis. One of the largest temporary and emergency shelters in the state, it’s a bright, welcoming and safe place where families live while seeking jobs and housing.

One recent October night PSP housed 344 individuals, including 105 families with 201 children younger than 18.

For the Ellis family, Hennepin county pays $153 a day for room, board and services with the actual costs figuring at close to $300, says Janine Wenholz, PSP’s director of finance and operations. She says 52 percent of the cost is covered by public money with the rest deriving from private dollars.

This fall families are staying here an average 46 days – up from the typical 30-day stay last year, Wenholz said, while the social service system across county and city works to help families find homes and jobs.

Waukisha Ellis, right, listens to a question from her son, Malachi, while her husband, Gregory, tends to their other children in their one-room apartment.MinnPost photo by Peter KoelemanWaukisha Ellis, right, listens to a question from her son, Malachi, while her husband, Gregory, tends to their other children in their one-room apartment.

Though often necessary for short-term crises, emergency shelter, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, is a “costly alternative to permanent housing.”

Still, in the Twin Cities, shelters are full to overflowing, as in most places around the country, says Cathy ten Broeke, coordinator to end homelessness for the city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County, despite programs that in better economic times had made promising inroads toward ending homelessness.

In Hennepin County on Oct. 6, all 225 rooms for families were full, ten Broeke said, with The Drake Hotel, an overflow shelter, housing an additional 49 families. Still, last year that day there were 60 families staying at The Drake, she said.

Shelter becomes home
Right now, for the lucky Ellis family, PSP is home.

Here a friendly uniformed guard waves residents through metal detectors and past a floor mat boasting: “Helping families find their way home.” A flat screen television hangs from the lobby ceiling playing “Dora the Explorer” cartoons.

Here there are social workers and advocates, an employment coordinator, a technology center with computers, a library, medical clinic, a child development center and preschool and tutoring services for school age children.

“You guys are like our extended family. You’re like aunts and uncles,” Greg tells retiring PSP director Jim Minor, who comes to greet us.

Minor thanks him, adding “We want you to feel good and safe here, but to get out of here”‘ and onto self-sufficiency and a better life.