Thanksgiving an empty promise for many among us

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Thanksgiving — a day of eating, and sometimes overeating. A day of gathering with family, friends and loved ones. Non-stop watching football games on television. A national holiday celebrated by most of us. But for others, Thanksgiving is just another day.

The holiday season usually puts the homeless on front stage, if only to briefly bring the issue to public awareness, says Cathy ten Broeke, the City/County coordinator to end homelessness in this area. “But I would like to challenge people to realize that people experience homelessness 365 days a year.

“We get a lot more help in this community around the holidays, and we certainly appreciate it,” says ten Broeke. “But we have just as much in need on Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day as we do on Christmas and Thanksgiving. I would like to challenge people to realize that people experience homelessness 365 days a year.

“[Homelessness] is happening all over the country, and people are seeing increases of homelessness in our communities,” continues ten Broeke. “Our increases [in Minneapolis] are smaller than most cities around the country.”

A harried-looking person holding a makeshift sign while standing on the street corner at intersections is the typical image most people have of the homeless. But according to ten Broeke, “Your typical, average homeless person in Minneapolis is an eight-year-old schoolchild. Children make up about half of all people who are experiencing homelessness in our community.

“I know that is not what people typically think about, but our Minneapolis Public Schools are full of kids who are either homeless or bouncing from house to house and couch sleeping. If you were to go down tonight to our family shelter, the average age of all the people in the family shelter is eight. That includes the children and the adults.”

Blacks and other people of color are “by far disproportionately experiencing homelessness,” says ten Broeke. Although the homeless problem is city-wide, the greatest impact is in the downtown and South Minneapolis areas “because that is where our services are, and that is where you really feel the biggest impact of homelessness,” she continues. “But I certainly think that many people on the North Side of Minneapolis are falling into homelessness and coming to downtown to get services.”

The growing number of foreclosures is bringing to her office more former renters, especially from the North Side, adds ten Broeke. State cuts also hit her office hard, such as Emergency Assistance and General Medical Assistance funds, she points out.

“Some of the cuts that have happened through the governor’s unallotment are pretty devastating to our work. This money is used to help pay for damage deposits, to help people get out of shelters and into housing. All of that money [about $3.8 million] has been eliminated.”

Though ten Broeke duly praised the work of 120 local and Hennepin County-based agencies that work with the City in eliminating the homelessness problem, she added, “I think that we as a community, and as a system of homeless service agencies, need to do a much better job of being culturally competent.”

Since 2005, her office twice a year sponsors an event called Project Homeless Connect, a one-stop shop of services that include housing, employment, medical care, mental health care, benefits and legal assistance, eye care, haircuts, chiropractic and dental care, all made available for the homeless at the Minneapolis Convention Center. “We bring together about 400 service providers and about 1,400 community volunteers to work with people experiencing homelessness,” claims ten Broeke, whose next event is scheduled for Monday, December 7.

She added that more people of color are needed as volunteers. “For whatever reasons, we haven’t been very successful recruiting people of color to be those volunteers at the event,” ten Broeke admits. “Maybe 60-70 percent of the people who walk through the doors that need the services are people of color, but only 20 percent of our volunteers are people of color. We really like to change that.”

When asked when homelessness will cease to be a problem in Minneapolis, ten Broeke surmises, “We have a very specific plan in this community to end homelessness for individual families and youth, and we have been implementing this plan for the last three years. This plan includes everything from prevention to a new street outreach initiative to providing housing opportunities to people and helping them connect with services.

“We have seen some incredible results – there is a lot of hard work going on, and I think it is paying off. Unfortunately, it’s hard to translate that into a reduction of homelessness right now because of the economy. Our challenge is that we can’t keep up with the current need because of the downturn of the economy.

“I am certain that when this economy turns around – and I know it’s slow, but when it does – we have made some serious systemic changes for the better that I think will really start to result in some decreases in homelessness,” ten Broeke says. “But we got to get a handle on this economy. We can’t do this at the local level alone.

“Anybody in this community can make an impact and help us end homelessness,” concludes ten Broeke. “I think in the past we really framed this issue as something that was impossible to solve, but now we know that we can end homelessness. It’s not a question of can we do this, but it is a question of when we do this. It is more of a political will and community will question.

“What we need from people [is that] we need everybody in our community to stand up and tell local, state and federal elected officials that [ending homelessness] is a priority for them. We know the solutions, and we should invest in those solutions.”

Anyone wishing to be a volunteer at the upcoming December 7 Project Homeless Connect can either go to www.homelessconnectminneapo lis.org (“You can click on that website and find out everything you need to know about the event, some of our data and statistics on what we actually do,” notes ten Broeke) or call Matthew Ayres at 612-596-6645 to sign up.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.