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

Gregory and Waukisha Ellis, with their children Faith, Malachi, and Gabriel.
MinnPost photo by Peter Koeleman
Gregory and Waukisha Ellis, with their children Faith, Malachi, and Gabriel.

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.

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.

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 Koeleman
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.

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.

Tomorrow: Working to turn their lives around.

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Comments (26)

"For the Ellis family, Hennepin county pays $153 a day for room, board and services"

That's $4590 a month.

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

We don't adequately fund subsidized housing (socialism!), so we end up paying more for shelter services. Story of the American safety net.

Dennis Tester says:
"For the Ellis family, Hennepin county pays $153 a day for room, board and services"

"That's $4590 a month."

Congratulations, Dennis. You have the math part down, now you just need to work on the empathy.

You're right, Dennis -- that IS a lot of money. And note the story says that that the actual cost is closer to $300 a day -- meaning more like $9,000 a month.

A lot of money, indeed. Yet what's the alternative? Do you have any suggestions? Are we to let this family live on the streets until they die? Or should their accommodations be more bare-bones -- crude bunks in a barracks setting, with oatmeal and cabbage for meals, and no social workers or job counselors? We could save some money that way.

Would churches step up and take care of them? For how long?

I just want to know what you'd suggest as alternatives.

Could anyone tell me what a high end speculator in grain futures takes in per day, or how much it takes for Paris Hilton to live?

It's amusing yet instructive that people are actually defending the $4590 cost to the taxpayers as somehow reasonable.

Oh, and for math lesson #2, that's $55,080 a year.

Here's some more math:

In the last two years, one of our local corporations blamed the economy for laying off its employees, cutting hours, cutting benefits.

The CEO of this corporation makes $13,000,000 a year. Take out your calculator. If this CEO works 52 weeks a year, and 50 hours per week, how much money does this CEO make an hour?

This is ONE corporation, and he/she isn't even the highest paid CEO in the country. I would suggest that this family isn't what's costing the taxpayer.

You do the math.

So what's your solution Dennis?

Cynthia - Do you know what that $300 a day covers? Does it include medical care, food, bus pass, etc?

I run the Tech Center at PSP. Yes, that $300 covers three meals a day, medical care at HCMC and a medical clinic on location. Residents get a monthly bus pass from the county. It also covers childcare.

I invite Mr. Tester and other commenters to come tour our facility any time.

I have no affiliation with PSP, but I'm glad to see DeeAnn stepped in to provide some more context as to where that daily charge goes.

Beyond the physical thing and employees to provide assistance, I think about the more intangible benefits a service like this has. Their childrens' cognitive growth and development hasn't been brought to a grinding halt because their parents lost their jobs.

Having their day to day needs met is so important for children as they develop to maintain their prospects of a bright future. Looking forward to reading the next installment!

Oops! Open mouth insert foot. The $300 covers shelter and food only. Childcare funding comes from grants and private donations.

Sorry!

It might also be useful to remember that unlike previous recessions, the unemployment has hit our working class almost exclusively, while the upper levels have seen little effect. That is the crime of this..... For the first time it is acceptable to balance the books by eliminating employees in order to keep the stock values and bottom lines high and also reward the high level staff for making the company more 'efficient'. Think about it. People who are on the lower levels have become dispensable, even many who have advanced education. Ask an unemployed person over 50, especially one who may have hidden disabilities or or preexisting conditions. I know many who are sliding over the edge with no safety net whatsoever.

First of all, this is a disgrace to the United States of America that is happening. It means that the USA is fast descending into Third World Status. Secondly, since Wall Street PARASITES created this problem, and NOBODY else, we should tax each transaction that the largest 25 banks (i.e. Wells Fargo) make in the derivatives market, so that everyone that they put out of work for the last five years can be fed and sheltered until there is an economic recovery. I triple dog DARE any politician to oppose this program. In the meantime FDR programs such as the WPA and CCC should be set up so these people can work, which is what they want to do, and thus do something productive for the country and themselves. FDR programs saved 3 million homes from foreclosure, and put 10 million people to work that created modern American infrastructure, won World War II, and inspired Ronald Reagan to vote for him four (4) times.

I'm also glad that DeeAnn has weighed in. Please no insulting of someone who is taking time to filling in more of the canvas as we read the story. People: Let's all behave on this thread. It's a real chance for two sides to see how diametrically opposed they are on this issue. Maybe we will learn just a little from the otherside by the time this series is finished.

Personally, I'm quite the conservative. My eyes blink when I see the dollar levels. I would give every dollar I have to my sister-brother-parent and move in with them before I would ding the taxpayer for that much. I just wished the governing agencies (that includes county) would force more people into my solution. Then save our precious tax dollars for those who truly have no options (eligibility decided by a stingy govt employees not recipients).
Please no rants about rich people and how much they make.

I just got back from PSP where I volunteer once a week in the preschool. Not all the costs are borne by the taxpayer or private funders. There are all kinds of volunteers who contribute time there as well. I see corporate employees, students, church groups, retirees and others donating their time.

Note that the costs are for the Ellis family of five. It's one thing to take in a homeless relative who crashes in the rec room, but how many are prepared to put up a whole family for a month or more?

This is a very safe and nurturing place for kids, and parents who bring their children here are trying to do the best thing for them as they try to get back on their feet. But I don't know anyone who would be happy staying here for a year.

It would be enlightening for any of the doubters to spend a day with these children and their families before they decide whether the taxpayer's money is being well-spent.

Unfortunately, many families do not have the option to let their homeless move in with them. They answer to a landlord, and when they do as family does, bringing more people in, they get evicted. The homeless numbers double and triple and ... You get the picture.

We're not talking about "rich people." We're talking about people who are gutting the businesses they are working for, and blaming government for it. Numbers, Eric, are not rants. They are numbers. And it's tough to argue them, so I get the "let's all get along" pitch.

I'm just not falling for it. I see those beautiful faces in the photo above, and I'm not feeling so reasonable.

Mr. Quimby

First of all my family and I once lived on a wage close to what the Ellises made. I am not going to judge the Ellises in their current misfortune.

However for people to justify that it costs $200 a day to house and feed a family of 5 shows the disconnect that exists. The Extended Stay hotels have rooms at $150-$200 a week.

This is an absolutely ridiculous problem to have in Minneapolis given after a two minute MLS search I found about 150 listings for homes in the Camden and Near North priced less than 50k, averaging about 35k. With that said my plan, "One Home MN" would have a few goals; fill vacant homes in the aforementioned neighborhoods with “families” and renovate said properties with assistance from willing would be residents. The would be residents would, in my opinion, would add value to the home with the improvements, earn some income for services preformed, and give the neighborhood some needed rehabilitation. Then give the residents would get a purchase option from the city should they gain employment during their stay. At 50k with a 5% rate you would be looking at about $350 a month. The resident families could then have an avenue to home ownership at an exceptionally reasonable rate. Funding, say 15m, could come from a bonding bill or Met Council. The homes would likely cost less than 7m so you could use the remaining balance for materials and labor. So you would get the daily cost about $23 a day (15m @5% borrowing rate amortized over 30yrs), without food costs.

To Raj:

I just checked. extended stay motels are at least $50 a night, and at the first I checked would not allow more than 4 people to stay in one room, which would force them to purchase two rooms and split up. Total cost would be $3000 a month without taxes. Average daycare costs for 3 children under the age of 5, with two of them two or under, $3500 a month, a necessity for the parents to look for jobs. It would cost then a minimum of $6500 just to sleep and job hunt, before they even eat or buy diapers for their kids.

(If we want to discuss why Minnesota is #2 in the nation for daycare costs, I'm happy to argue that it is ridiculous as well. But that's the situation.

To Robin Marty

Go to Expedia and type in Rooms for a week (with 3 children) starting this Saturday. U can get hotel rooms starting at $38 (w/ Free Continental Break Fast).

I've also seen Extended Stays offering Weekly deals. Also there are plenty of 2 bedroom apts in nice areas that would be less than $100 a day.

Regarding Day Care, one parent can look for a job while the other stays home.

A few simple ideas to live on less than $200 a day.

Raj, I just did your experiment. I was given budget inn in burnsville. I put in all three children and was told that exceeded room max.

Also, while out in Burnsville, it would be nearly impossible for them to seek any job interview not in Burnsville, due to the woeful mass transit system.

Both of them looking for jobs at the same time would double their chances of finding employment, which appears to be a priority for them to get back on their feet and get them to a place where it wouldn't cost so much in expenses to live. It depends on what is the priority - self sufficiency as quickly as possible, or making sure that they live on as little as they can get away with.

would we need to be subsidizing any family if employers were required to pay a LIVING WAGE? isn't it reverse socialism to have to subsidize people because businesses refuse to pay living wages?

Robin.

I tried and there is Days Inn, Burnsville; Micro Tel, Eagan, Day Inn Minneapolis North.
Also there is a straight bus from Burnsville/Eagan to downtown MSP and multiple buses to MOA. I take them to work sometimes.

If the cost of doubling chances of finding employment is an additional $3500 a month, it would be wiser to focus on one persons job search. Else they could schedule their interviews on alternate days.

When there is a will there is a way.

If North High School has to close, couldn't it be made into a family shelter where the library, cafeteria, clothing resources and job support all could be on one site? The gym would allow recreation and physical fitness and outdoor space could be used for recreation.
Each family could have a classroom space for some privacy. Some classrooms could be retained for GED programs or tutoring and classes for kids.
One of the big problems now is that families have to trek from site to site, often spending two or three hours a day on the bus with small children. It is disruptive for the kids and exhausting for parents and keeps them from focusing on their job searches. North would be large enough to concentrate services in one space.
There could be a time limit of six months or a year. Parents who successfully complete programming and find jobs early could get grants of some of the money that would have been used for services for a longer stay to use toward rent, a car or other transitional expenses....
Just a thought.

As usual, the flamethrowers from the far right have no alternatives to offer.