What happened when a builder of luxury homes discovered one of his workers was homeless

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

My team is currently designing and building luxury homes throughout the metro. Many will cost the buyer more than $1 million, and some are even more. I’ve been in this business over 44 years, building homes all over Minnesota and Wisconsin.

While I’ve long had a concern for people who are homeless, we didn’t directly cross paths.

Then I learned one of my crew, a highly skilled carpenter, sold his tools. That’s the one thing a professional carpenter would never do.

Then, I learned he was sleeping outside.

I’ve donated to different programs over the years and heard about a lot of services, so I brought my employee to get help, thinking he would receive shelter until he found housing.

We sought information and were asked to stay in touch. I said, “Wait, where does he go now?” I didn’t realize the existing programs are full.

The old thinking that people just need to get a job doesn’t address the problem anymore. People have jobs but won’t keep them if they’re sleeping in cars. They need a safe place to rest so they can work to save for housing. For others, they need care for untreated trauma or a mental or chemical health concern.

My employee lived with my family for a time, but his significant health care needs required professional care, which we could not provide, and it simply overwhelmed my family. He then stayed alive with monthly transit passes to shelter on the trains or transit centers when the shelters were full.

I am a home builder who has built well over 2000 homes, but I couldn’t find him the one roof he needed.

I’m a fiscal conservative, but I can see that the math isn’t working. We are wasting money having people without housing.

While trying to help my employee, I learned more. From what I’ve observed, I believe there are cities posturing in support of affordable housing, but when it comes down to it, they shy from following through in its production. I’ve seen affordable housing design plans that met the zoning and land use requirements, complied to the letter, and people show up en masse to say: “Not here.” Some developers have the capacity to build the housing without help, but most don’t.

When people are on life’s edge, we must do better — in both the private and public sectors — to meet people’s most basic needs.

Until the need for affordable housing is met, which I believe will take years, unsheltered individuals and families need a safe place to sleep.

Fortunately, after months, my carpenter obtained supportive housing. But I remain haunted knowing there are people like my employee who are facing the shocking brutality of surviving the winter outside, now viewing snowfalls from the cars in which they sleep.

As told to Monica Nilsson, shelter director for the Elim Church and Strong Tower Shelters project.