Among the homeless, you’ll find people more like you than you realize

March 30, 2020 5:49 am

Men sleeping at Strong Tower Parish. Life for people experiencing homelessness has become more perilous since the pandemic.

We carelessly attach words to homeless people: panhandler, drunk, lazy bum. At Elim Church and Strong Tower Parish shelters, which have 80 beds in Minneapolis, I tried to come up with more accurate descriptions. 

Take a moment, if you would, and see if you can find yourself in these people. 

restaurant worker went to Edison HS met Governor Walz leads prayer before dinner Vietnam vet has stage 4 colon cancer works at a grocery store has pneumonia-constantly coughing is reading her bible manic -- up all night too quiet to get attention born in Pipestone brought by police went to Burnsville HS born in Brained is an optimist turned 79 this year had a seizure this week went to North HS went to South HS born in Duluth gave staff a thank you note delivers food vomits in bucket from blood cancer went to Richfield HS cleans US Bank Stadium served in the Army was a Marine moving to housing has a traumatic brain injury has autism completed rape kit at hospital tonight wants to go to church wears a pretty Hijab went to Coon Rapids HS went to Kennedy HS grew up in NE Mpls with chihuahua is a grandma cooks a mean pot roast always says thank you
The bed chart is created everyday by the overnight staff, in order to organize wakeup calls that start at 4 a.m. This is a graphic representation of that chart created by the Reformer.

It’s taken a pandemic, but many Minnesotans are now realizing that though we may think we are independent, or bound only to our network of family and friends, in fact we are all interconnected. The young person who thinks he’s invulnerable to COVID-19 is endangering his own grandmother. The panhandler with whom we avoid conversation and eye contact is just as or more susceptible to COVID-19 as the rest of us, which means if we don’t find a place for him to sleep and wash his hands, he could become part of the inexorable logic of the disease’s spread.  

Here are some of the stories of people experiencing homelessness on a recent night.  

Just after the shelter opens, Joe comes in but then staggers off to vomit nearby. He is not drunk. He is a military veteran living with stage 4 cancer. He asks me to tell people who stare that he is not contagious, and asks if he can still stay. With four toilets for 80 people, we ask them to be patient so we can meet the most urgent needs first. 

These Minnesotans are exhausted after wandering the aisles of Target and the skyways since 7 a.m. when the shelters closed for the day. They rest at the IDS Crystal Court, which is an office building with a big food plaza. Or they spend the day outside — when it’s not raining.  

Mary’s chihuahua gently rises and falls on her chest as they both sleep around 8:30 p.m.

We pass out cough drops and snacks just before 9 p.m. lights out. Two men are arguing about one’s snoring and tossing and turning. With a packed shelter and nowhere to move him, we insist they work it out or leave.

Kurt arrives around 11 p.m. He walked across town and asks if he can come in. I’m sorry, we’re full, you can’t come in. Until recently, shelter advocates could take small comfort in giving out bus tokens when we have to turn people away so at least people could rest in safety, out of the elements, on public transportation. With Metro Transit now closing services after 11 p.m., he will have to sleep outside.

In the middle of the night, we fear Ann may be experiencing a manic episode. She is still up sorting through her belongings. Women are getting frustrated that they can’t sleep. All women share one room, so creating separation is difficult. Peggy’s pneumonia is causing a terrible cough. We put her outside the office door to try to quiet the sleeping quarters. 

Sleeping mats for women at Elim Chuch shelter.

When it’s time to close in the morning, Minnesotans who are here for the first time and who have never been homeless ask where they should go. The library is closed, the drop-in centers are full and turning people away. Someone wishes she could go to church on a Sunday morning. Women speak of losing dignity when they find no public restroom and must go outside. 

We give everyone 2 bus tokens: One to leave the area in the morning so we can reduce our daily footprint on the neighborhood, and another to come back here in the evening to sleep. 

As you shelter-in-place at home, we ask that you keep in your hearts and minds the people who spend their days in our communities with no place to be.  

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Monica Nilsson
Monica Nilsson

Monica Nilsson has provided direct service and advocacy for people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota for 25 years. She believes their stories can change systems and public perception.