During the fourth annual Selby Stroll this weekend, about a dozen businesses along St. Paul’s Selby Avenue will do their part to raise awareness — and money — for Listening House of St. Paul, dubbed “the living room of the homeless.” Several businesses will donate a percentage of their proceeds from the weekend’s revenues, while others will take part in a gift certificate raffle.
Last year, the event raised $2,500 for Listening House. Two years ago, half that much was raised. It’s not a lot of money, but it goes directly to the House’s general operating fund, which Director Rosemarie Reger-Rumsey says is “the toughest money to get.” Much of the foundation and grant support is earmarked for specific programs, but the general fund is essential to keeping the doors open.
House is hangout of choice for many homeless
Each day, about 200 people, most of them single men, come to the House to hang out, check out the messages and mail boards or do chores in exchange for bus tokens. When the House opened 24 years ago as a place to relax and be listened to, it served about 25 people — the entire year. Reger-Rumsey says the continuing rise in current guests (that’s how she refers to those Listening House serves) is partly an outcome of decades’ worth of corporate downsizing and a job market that has become increasingly high-tech and specialized.
Additionally, most of those coming to the House are addicted to drugs or mentally ill, or both. Some have felonies on their record. Reger-Rumsey says the House provides a stable environment where homeless adults can find respect, clothes, mail, a cup of hot coffee and, perhaps most importantly, community.
“Everybody needs to feel they belong,” says Reger-Rumsey. “On difficult days you can feel the loneliness in the room. Many of the guests feel a sense of being disconnected from the whole. But we’re here to keep that light of hope alive, keep them energized for wanting to do something different. The greatest challenge we have is that we are not the change-makers. We’re just here to provide the environment for those going through change.”
With an annual budget of $320,000, the eight staff members and dozens of volunteers provide guests a sense of stability along with key life skill services. These include classes on such basics as how to create a resume, apply for a job and keep that job. Staffers also help guests navigate the systems for social services and health care.
“We get a lot of bang for our buck around here,” says Reger-Rumsey. “You have to be creative to finance this.”
On a recent cold, snowy Tuesday, about 140 men and a handful of women crowd into the relatively small, 1,700-square-foot “living room.” They’re talking, sleeping, staring off into space. The free clothing room is open, so those needing a coat or something to wear can sign up to “shop” in what is actually a big closet. Guests say they like the clothes offerings (and the free haircuts) because it helps them not “look homeless.”
Staff faces big hurdles in helping
Despite the community support Listening House offers, Reger-Rumsey says the staff’s biggest challenge is limited options when trying to help, whether it’s housing or navigating the “flooded” human service and medical systems.
“Some guests are highly addicted, but the systems are very overbooked,” she says. “Or the client doesn’t qualify because they don’t have health insurance. We’re trying to help them navigate around those barriers, the land mines in the system.”
Reger-Rumsey says many feel disconnected. Even when someone gets into an apartment, the arrangement often doesn’t last if there isn’t adequate community support through work, church or family.
The foreclosure crisis, too, has added an extra layer of complexity to the homeless problem. “Some of the guests, they finally got into housing, and were paying rent, but the building owner foreclosed on the property,” she says. “So they’re feeling like they’re back to square one. I think we’re seeing just the tip of that iceberg.”
Reger-Rumsey is on the St. Paul/Ramsey County Homeless Advisory Board which unveiled a new plan earlier this year to end homelessness. “It’s very ambitious, and it’s going to cost a lot of money. I think we need to engage the larger community. People can’t think government is the only answer.”
Even though homelessness is complex and she’s been working on the issue for 17 years, she remains hopeful.
“This room is filled with potential opportunity,” says Reger-Rumsey. “We say to them, ‘We support you, but the work’s on you. You are capable.’ Change can happen. We remind them of their worth, energy, courage and belief in themselves.”
“We can help in peripheral ways,” she says. “There’s a saying that the homeless are canned like sardines and move like herds. It’s very dispiriting. We try to help give them hope, respect and a reason to get up every morning from the mat on the floor.”
The following Selby Avenue shops are participating in the Selby Stroll fundraiser: Paper Patisserie, W.A. Frost & Co., Common Good Books, The Muddy Pig, Fabulous Ferns, Estectica, Nina’s Coffee House, Great Harvest Bread, Solo Vino, Fleur des Lis, Arthur Murray and 526 Salon.