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What it's like to be a young mother, homeless and looking for help

Gloria Gary, center, has been homeless for a year, one of at least 13,000 homeless in the state.
MinnPost photo by John Noltner
Gloria Gary, center, has been homeless for a year, one of at least 13,000 homeless in the state.

A day after a tornado wreaked instant havoc and homelessness in North Minneapolis, I meet Gloria Gary, a woman who hasn't had a place to call her own for a year.  

She knows only too well the effect of nights spent couching-hopping or staying in emergency shelters: "I don't know if I'm going through a depression or what,'' she tells me.

Our meeting Monday played out like a scene from a slow-motion movie, each of us moving toward one other hesitantly, an unlikely pairing, except for Project Homeless Connect. I'm a long-married journalist with two grown sons; she's a single 21-year-old woman with her wide-eyed 2-year-old boy in tow, one hand in hers, the other in his mouth.

Before our six-hour day together was over I'd be rocking her son, Javion, on my hip, singing him "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,'' and guiding her to people who might help her change her life: specialists in housing, legal issues and emotional health gathered at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

But I'd also see how hard it is to get people off the couches of friends or family and into their own affordable places, especially as the numbers of homeless climb in the wake of Sunday's vicious twister.

By Tuesday, organizers had hustled to host a smaller-scale repeat performance — Project Connect Tornado Assistance Center — that drew more than 1,200, increasing competition for safe and affordable housing. Experts estimate major damage to the housing of 5,000 to 6,000 people.

But Project Homeless Connect, hosted by the city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County and costing $35,000 to $40,000 in donations and private funding, was making its 11th appearance. It's a gathering of the needy thousands and those who can help — from public and private sectors — coming together with hope big connections can be made in quick time.

Almost 300 other U.S. cities do something similar, including St. Paul (June 28). It gets things done, says Sharon Meister, taking the day off from her job as a social worker for Hennepin County to volunteer.   

As a journalist, I typically wear an observer's hat, but I left it home Monday to join a sea of 1,100 volunteers dressed in black and white t-shirts and hoping to make a difference in the lives of about 1,800 homeless and near-homeless.

Our shirts boast: "Ending Homelessness, one person at a time.'' I am there to check out the premise.

Gloria and I exchange "hi's" and names and head to a pair of chairs in one row among hundreds of chairs facing one another like so many chess pieces, settling down to a questionnaire.

She's been homeless for a year, one of at least 13,000 homeless in the state, last housed with another single mom and her child in a place that went into foreclosure. Before that she says she "forced" herself to go to an emergency shelter in Minneapolis, where she stayed three months.  

"I don't want to be in a shelter. My son has health problems,'' Gloria says earnestly. Asthma, it turns out, and there are health issues, related to his "flipping backwards" out of her arms at an airport and injuring his head in the fall.  

For now, she's living with her cousin, but that won't work long term.

Gloria Gary would prefer not to live in a shelter while tending to her son Javion's health problems.
MinnPost photo by John Noltner
Gloria Gary would prefer not to live in a shelter while tending to her son Javion's health problems.

Her only income is a $430 monthly check she's expecting to receive June 1 from the Minnesota Family Investment Program, nowhere near enough for rent. 

At an earlier training session conducted by the coordinator of the Office to End Homelessness in Minneapolis and Hennepin County, volunteers had been told to ask "guests,'' as we were to consider them, to prioritize their needs.

So I ask Gloria. Her top concern is her state of mind, she says, followed by housing. "I try to think positive, but sometimes it's hard.''

Leaving Javion happily in child care to play, we head to the health-care resources room. She talks privately with folks from the Hennepin County Mental Health Center, who give her information about a support group. I see a sign for the University of St. Thomas Interprofessional Center for Counseling and Legal Services and guide her there, as well.

She'll follow up with them, she says, because they'll talk with her one-on-one.  

Her story comes out patchwork while we line up for help and over lunch. She tears up a little, telling me of a troubled family background, being a single mom, a thin employment record, some history of paying for her own apartment.  A high school grad, she's worked at restaurants and a debt collection agency, was once fired though she can't understand why.

After lunch, we head to a room with housing specialists. Representatives of Simpson Housing Services, which provides transitional housing for families, are there and so she hears more about their lottery system for filling housing openings. The wait could be long, she's told.

Other specialists suggest she may have to return to emergency shelter to be able to qualify for housing assistance.

"You mean,'' I ask, "she has to go into emergency housing that costs the county though maybe she could stay with a cousin for free until something gets arranged?"

Seems so.

We bring my question to experts at the information desk. Check with Danita Banks, we're told, a housing pro with Hennepin County.

"If you have to go back into shelter [to get housing], you have to go back into shelter,'' Banks says. Still, she's consoling: "Let me just remind you this is not your fault.''
 
The next day I bring the issue up with Cathy ten Broeke, coordinator of the Office to End Homelessness in Minneapolis and Hennepin County, major players in the event. "This is the big challenge,'' she tells me. There's a huge gap, even when people are working hard or have disability or other income, between what they can pay and the housing that is available.

At Project Connect, Gloria and I make a last stop. Being Gloria was foreclosed on and the property owner didn't return her $1,400 security deposit, Banks has advised we check with the legal folks.  

A trek to legal provides happy results. Housing attorney Matt Eichenlaub, from HOME Line, tells her she can sue her former landlord for the security deposit and more, enough to perhaps set her up in a new place, but she'll have to assemble details necessary for a lawsuit.

He jots down a checklist of information she'll need and where to get it, including the property owner's name and address and the foreclosure notice, then gives her his business card and a caveat: "Suing someone is easy, but getting money out of them is hard.''   

Still, she's hopeful. "That made me a little happier, to think I can get some justice,'' Gloria says with a slight smile.

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Comments (8)

Thank you Cynthia for taking the time out to hear my story. I am keeping my head up and looking forward.

I have volunteered at all but the first Minneapolis event. I have tried to get people to volunteer just to see what help is possible. Every volunteer from dental and medical to taking the guest around. Getting an id is popular. All this so the guest can find a job or home.

People seem to think volunteers need to fit an age category. The only age category is anyone from 19 to 100 years old. And all ages are there! Creating good memories.

This last event was different in that the tornado victims were already showing up. The follow-on event for them on Tuesday shows what a systemic approach can do. This approach was even used after huricanes in the south.

Why did this woman have children in the first place?

What were her expectations about who would pay for what for raising children?

Come on, MinnPost readers. This is why we are in so much financial trouble. We've allowed a generation (or two) to think they can procreate and we'll pay for it.

This is why people on the right are so ticked off. They go to jobs and pay taxes for people who don't go to jobs, have kids, and expect the state to pay for it.

Thank you, Gloria, for bravely telling your story even as you struggle with what is likely depression, as well as homelessness and joblessness.

Madeline, regardless of your political views, please take note that some 1,000 people at this event, paid for by donations and private funding, took action toward change by volunteering their time to help connect Gloria and others with services that will help them move toward economic independence.

This is a cycle that keeps repeating itself. Even after the 1000'th volunteer there will be a need for a 1000 more and a 1000 more.... Will this change using the current solutions. NO.

I need to comment. Having been involved with the similar program in Carlton Co(Cloquet area) since it's inception I can see where people feel this is just another "gimme program" I assure the doubters that it's not. I DO NOT think most, when given the choice, want to be homeless, hungry, or single uninsured parents. Our systems that are in place don't reward the person that wants to get off the roles instead keeps the thumb on them. If someone makes a nickel over the guidelines they don't qualify for help. Whenever someone who is receiving help makes too much they are punished by taking away benefits instead of letting them get a nickel ahead. Some of the expectations are unreal. When they are unemployed ,in order to get help one must, in a rural community, travel sometimes 90 or more miles round trip to watch a video of how to apply for a job, not just once but repeatedly, gee, if they can't feed the family how do they pay for the gas to get there to watch a video for jobs available? The whole system seems broken & in dire need of repair.

I am grateful for Cynthia Boyd's article and also for the comments from volunteers and from people who know what poverty is really like. The rest of us should listen before we cast blame on people we know little about.

In her comments, Dianne Knoben has described for us a system that is penny-wise and pound-foolish, to quote an old English saying. Why do benefits run out when the poor find work? So that the rest of us save money. Why are social services concentrated in the cities, hard to reach by the rural poor? So that the rest of us save money. But when we save money in these counterproductive ways, we make it harder for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Consequently, the poor remain dependent longer, and the rest of us end up spending more money on them.

By spending more generously on improved social programs that would help people make the climb from poverty to independence more quickly and more permanently, we could actually save money. But in order to design more effective and ultimately more cost-saving programs like this, we must first listen very carefully to the people who have come through the system as it is and know its drawbacks firsthand.

..... I try and try...... But still no help. Since we did this interview Ive been denied for MFIP from the state 2 times, going 4 months off of hope and prayer ive been surviving this epic as some would call it. I dont want to have my 2 yr old son seeing "mommy" struggling its not something i want! It hurts to see people just alway putting a labels on people in my situation when its just we need a little help.