People who lived on the streets, in shelters and in their cars talk about how they got there, how they survived and how they found hope through local community organizations

Oct. 25, 2013, edition
By Sue Schulzetenberg-Gully

In the midst of transitional housing, Jennifer Parker’s children were restless. They had been living at Recovery Plus, at Journey Home and at Catholic Charities’ Domus Transitional housing. Parker and her two girls had been sharing living space with other people.

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Charles Evans, struggling to work his way out of homelessness, talked about how long the days are when a person is walking around with no home to which to go. He writes poetry to express his feelings. Photos by Paul Middlestaedt / For The Visitor

The girls asked if they can just stay at one place.

Parker tried to keep the girls hopeful.

“I told them, we will find a place to live,” Parker said. “We will call some place home.”

Working through addiction at Recovery Plus and transitioning into a new life at Journey Home and Domus, Parker was true to her word. The programs helped her recover, be accountable, bond with her children and follow her dreams. Currently attending classes at St. Cloud Technical and Community College in the paralegal program, she and the girls now have a house in St. Cloud. Once home, the family felt more like family.

“The kids have a place they can call their own,” Parker said. “Being homeless, we didn’t have that option. They have a yard to play in. We can eat at the table as a family and sit and talk.”

Homelessness is something Parker would not wish on anyone, especially not mothers and children. She and her girls became homeless when Parker decided to leave her apartment and seek help to overcome her addiction. Fortunately for them, living accommodations were available in the community so they could at least be sheltered during that difficult transition time. Others, The Visitor learned, are not as fortunate.

Long days, cold nights

Charles Evans, age 48, has slept in parking ramps and under bridges. His options became more limited after receiving a ticket for sleeping in a store stairwell.

“I can’t sleep outside,” he said. “There’s so much stuff crawling around it makes you jump. There are people walking by. It creeps me out just being there alone.”

When interviewed in September, he described his schedule as consisting of walking around, going to the library, more walking and eating supper at the Place of Hope in St. Cloud. The nights are cold, the days are long and he never feels at rest.

“All I want to do is have a place,” he said. “All we think about 24/7 is having a bed to sleep in at night. I forget the feeling of what it’s like to walk in that door, your body at ease, knowing you’re home. We don’t get that. Our bodies are always tight. We’re always struggling and driving to make it, make it and make it.”

Evans became homeless in March after leaving group housing. He was living in a group home because of mental health issues, but with knee problems, “rubbing bone-on-bone,” he found the stairs troublesome and was tired of not being able to make his own decisions and the lack of privacy.

At the Place of Hope, he hopes to work toward a new start. He recently opened a bank account to save money for rent. He said he especially looked forward to the Place of Hope’s Church of the Week program, which began this month to provide overnight housing.

Numbers on the rise

More than 10,000 people were counted as homeless in Minnesota in the 2012 Minnesota Homeless Study by Wilder Research. (See box at right.) Because many homeless people outside of the shelter system were not found on the night of the study, such as those couch hopping, Wilder Research estimates that there are actually 14,000 people who are homeless on any given night in Minnesota.

The number of homeless counted has been steadily rising. It increased by 6 percent from 2009 to 2012. In between 2006 and 2009, the study reported a 25 percent increase in homelessness. Of special note, the Wilder study noted a 22 percent increase in the number of two-parent homeless families since 2009.

Organizations that help people facing homelessness in St. Cloud can verify the increase. One year ago, The Salvation Army was at 60 percent capacity. Now it is usually at capacity.

“I can’t put a finger on specifically why because people are coming in with the same kinds of issues: mental health issues, the employment issue and the availability of housing,” said Maj. Lee Morrison of The Salvation Army in St. Cloud.

“What the average person can do to prevent homelessness goes back to the family and the strong family ties, Morrison said. “When people come to the shelter that means the mother wouldn’t take them in, the dad wouldn’t take them in, the other siblings wouldn’t take them in, grandma and grandpa wouldn’t let them sleep on the couch. Something has broken down. I think there’s a breakdown in the family and that is very, very important.”

Place of Hope has noticed the increase in families that are homeless.

“One of the hardest things is to see a family,” said Pastor Carol Smith of Place of Hope Ministries. “It’s tough to see the kids struggling.”

Pastor Smith cannot pinpoint the cause for the increase in families but thinks economics plays a factor as well as mental health issues.

Rick Podvin, program manager of Domus and Veterans Transitional Housing, social worker for the Al Loehr Apartments and chairman of the St. Cloud Area Homeless Concerns Group, sees more children who are homeless.

“There’s so much diversity in the homeless population,” Podvin said. “We get this stereotype of the person standing with the cardboard sign on Highway 15. We don’t see the struggling woman with her child getting on the bus. I see that from my office, summer, winter, rain or shine or snow, getting on the bus with her children, taking her children to a daycare center and going to work.”

Nearly one-half of the people experiencing homelessness counted in the Wilder study are under 21 years old. The study counted 1,151 youth living on their own. Of those youth, 146 were 17 years old or younger and 1,005 were between 18 and 21 years old. In addition, the study counted 3,546 children who were homeless with their parents.

“I never thought of kids being homeless, because I thought of them with their parents, but if the mom is homeless, the child is homeless,” said Lana Faber, program coordinator for Domus.

Couch-to-couch, place-to-place

Leading causes of homelessness include job loss, lack of affordable housing, mental health issues, domestic abuse, chemical dependency and childhood trauma.

Many of the homeless couch-hop from place to place. Others turn to the streets. Some find help from agencies like The Salvation Army, Catholic Charities and Place of Hope.

“Once you’re on the street, it’s so difficult to get off,” said Pastor Smith. “If you need to move into an apartment, you need the first month’s rent, last month’s rent, damage deposit. When you’re on the street, or you’re experiencing homelessness, a lot of your money might go into hotels or other things. Many of us don’t have reserves built up like that. A lot of working people live check-to-check.”

According to the Wilder study, 51 percent of participants reported lack of job or income as one of the main barriers to permanent housing. Thirty percent reported a major barrier being no housing available that they can afford. Credit problems were listed as the third most common barrier in the study.

For the job search, people experiencing homelessness need a cell phone, a computer and an address. They also need to make long-term goals and plan for the future, which can be difficult when they do not know when their next meal will be.

“When there’s a lot of chaos going on, it’s hard to look at the future,” Faber said. “It’s about survival, and you have to think about where the next meal is coming from, where to sleep next and how to meet other basic needs.”

Domus Transitional Housing provides temporary housing and support services to women with children. The women and children come from other residential programs with goals in mind and work to meet them before they leave. The average stay at Domus is between six to 12 months. The participants pay 30 percent of their income as a program fee, and 45 percent of their income goes into their long-term stability fund. Every month they review goals and progress with staff.

Several other agencies also help the homeless look toward the future.

“We are one of many different programs,” Podvin said. “There are many services needed for many different parts of the homeless population: single, adult, elderly, child, families with children, families without children. We have one perspective. We’re just part of that puzzle.”

At The Salvation Army in St. Cloud clients need to work on a plan.

“Our goal is to work with people whose goal is to be in a stable environment, whether it be in an apartment or in a house,” Morrison said. “That includes a job search, applying for assistance if that’s the need. A significant number of people have mental health issues they need to deal with. The case manager works with them in determining what that plan will be. As long as they are working that plan, they can stay here.”

Working poor

Almost one-fourth of homeless adults are employed, and 8 percent are working full time, according to Wilder. Many jobs, however, do not pay enough to support a family. A person earning minimum wage would need to work 74 hours per week to afford rent for a modest-two bedroom apartment priced at $699 per month, according to the Min-nesota Housing Partnership.

“People have this perception that there are people out there just doing a trust fall into a safety net,” Podvin said. “Our perception is there is not enough of a safety net out there for anyone to do a trust fall into the safety net.”

Affordable housing is an issue. According to the Minnesota Housing Partnership, 97 percent of Minnesota’s 87 counties have more extremely low-income renters than affordable apartments. Over the last decade, incomes for renters have fallen, while rents have risen in most places, the partnership reported.

Stearns County ranked the lowest of Minnesota counties in regards to having affordable housing, according to the Minnesota Housing Partnership. In Stearns County, for every 100 extremely low income renters there are 26 units available. Other counties with the least amount of rental units for extremely low income renters were Kanabec, Da-kota, Washington and Pipestone.

Job shortage is also an obstacle many homeless face. There are two job seekers for each vacant job in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. The medium wage for job va-cancies is $12.50.

Still, jobs can be obtained, Pastor Smith said. Participants in the Department of Corrections work release program co-ordinated through Place of Hope need to get jobs within 30 days.

“They are all finding work, so I do say there are jobs out there, but people might not be qualified for the jobs,” Pas-tor Smith said.

Bringing hope, changing lives

For many organizations, hope is a key word.

“They are homeless, but they are not without hope,” Morrison said. “Our goal is to not only give them confidence in themselves but to give them confidence that with God’s help they can live better than they ever did before.”

Pastor Smith has a similar mission.

“There is nothing better than helping people come out of things that are hurting them, that are a struggle for them,” she said. “Our mission is bringing hope. We just want to bring hope to people. People need hope and they get hope from people who care.”

When they have hope, they are able to meet program goals and open new chapters in their lives.

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Charles Mechley talks about the challenges of living on the street as a homeless person. Photos by Paul Middlestaedt / For The Visitor

“[Place of Hope] changed my life,” said Charles Mechley who was homeless on and off for six to seven years. “It taught me how to serve. I was homeless before I got here. Serving the homeless changed my heart, changed my mind on what I wanted to do in life.”

In the restoration discipleship program at Place of Hope, he had assignments and tests, attended class, completed chores, fed the homeless, went to a workout center, participated in Bible study and attended church. Since graduating from the program in February, he has been helping out at Place of Hope. He hopes to work in the ministry of helping others and prevent homelessness.

“I come from a background of drug addiction,” Mechley said. “I got fed up with my life and I decided to surrender to something and that was God. He helped me from the in-side out. It gave me something to strive for and now that’s to help others. Loving him I can love people.”

Mechley said that when he was homeless he would wander the streets, sit in the library or at a restaurant, sit in his car, drive around, work or look for work.

“It was miserable, lonely, cold. I was hungry,” Mechley said.

But as Mechley and Parker know, homelessness can be conquered.

“As a mom you want nothing better for a child to have a home, to go home and sleep in their own room,” Parker said. “It’s so much easier to be a mom in a home.”

homelesscareBy the numbers: Homeless in Minnesota
14,000 people are estimated to be homeless on any given night in Minnesota

Number of people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota regions (see map):
Central: 605
Northeast: 319
Northwest: 666
Southeast: 619
Southwest: 199
West central: 311
St. Louis County: 752
Seven county metro area: 6,711

Immediate causes of homelessness include:
Could not afford rent or house payments: 38%
Lost job or had hours cut: 32%
Eviction, which could be for financial or other reasons : 29%
Personal conflicts, including breakup with a spouse or partner: 23%
Problems getting along with others: 23%
Drinking or drug problems: 17%
Note: Totals exceed 100 percent because respondents could identify multiple reasons.

Other factors associated with homelessness:
30% of women who are homeless are because of domestic abuse
37% of homeless adults were physically abused as children
26% of homeless adults were sexually abused as children

Long-term homelessness:
56% of homeless adults are long-term homeless, which means they have been homeless for a year or longer or they have been homeless four times in the past three years
60% of long-term homeless adults have a serious mental illness
54% have a chronic health condition
26% have a substance abuse disorder diagnosis
48% have a condition that limits the kind or amount of work they are able to do
Source: Wilder Research, 2012 Minnesota Homeless Study