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Searching for the homeless: Who are they?

Paul Dunavin
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Paul Dunavin: Homeless but waiting for housing.

He's a super-sized teddy bear of a man, his brimmed cap a little tight, his expansive frame wrapped in a lightweight jacket though he's sitting indoors and safe at Peace House, a storefront gathering place for the poor in the Phillips neighborhood. 

Yet, it is Paul Dunavin's eyes I can't turn away from, shy eyes in a sad face that often look away rather than at you. Likely it's been that way ever since his alcoholic father kicked him out of the house at age 14, ever since he ditched school forever at 16. Self confidence tends to wane when you haven't worked in a very long time, when you bed outside in the shelter of bushes, as Dunavin, 43, does.


So there was special meaning to the "I Count" sticker Monica Nilsson handed him Thursday morning in Minneapolis as she and 100 volunteers from St. Stephen's Human Services and 80 other organizations around Hennepin County went about their quarterly count of "unsheltered people.''

She had asked: "Where did you sleep last night?''

He had answered: "Outside.''

Either the shelters are full or overcrowded or they're afraid of shelters or of coming into the city, explained Nilsson, director of street outreach at St. Stephen's and president of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. Besides having no money for housing, there might also be other barriers to sleeping inside: mental or chemical health issues or physical disabilities, or the law, all conditions that cause a person to overlook the dangers of sleeping outdoors.

With 85 percent of organizations reporting, Nilsson said Tuesday that last week's count tallied 311 adults, youths and children in Minneapolis and surrounding areas had slept outside that typically cool and wet spring night of April 28.

Of those, 85 were youths without their parents and of those half were long-term homeless, meaning they had been homeless at least one year or homeless four times in the last three years. There were 13 families with a total 26 children. The adults were mostly male, but the youths 50 percent female.

Platoon of counters
Four times a year St. Stephen's organizes the tally, a platoon of counters doing a daytime survey of folks mostly around Minneapolis at congregating sites, soup kitchens, hospital emergency rooms, detoxification centers, schools and the parks.

That's information her nonprofit agency — geared at preventing homelessness while also providing services to those living in public and private spaces outdoors — needs to know. 

Depending on the time of year, the survey commonly reveals between 300 and 500 individuals who sleep outdoors, with last January 28's count revealing 340 people sleeping outside in the cold.

Wilder Research's broader count released in March demonstrated a 22 percent increase among homeless adults, youths and children in shelters, transitional housing and on the streets over three years ago.  

Sometimes it's overcrowding that prevents the homeless from seeking shelter. Many shelters are stretched thin, Nilsson said. Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army between the two of them have a capacity of 400 people. "They shelter 700 a night,'' she said. "People are like sardines, literally."

And there's one staff person to every 80 clients, many who are depressed and often under the influence of drugs or alcohol, she said.

"We're not sheltering mentally ill people, we're creating them. All of their anxieties, any of those conditions of mental health deteriorate under poor conditions," said Nilsson, a soft-spoken woman.

Why wouldn't you, she asked me, if you still have a car or can sleep in someone's garage, or even outdoors, why not choose that instead?

Sometimes people are so mentally ill they're "kicked out" of shelters, she said. "They are so psychotic, they can't confirm to the rules of the shelter." Or they have addictions or traumatic brain injuries.

Take the Ethiopian woman who "hasn't showered for weeks," wandering around Franklin Avenue, wearing all of her clothes, about five layers worth. "She has no money, no income. It's just not as simple as 'Get a job, get an apartment.' She is desperately mentally ill,'' said Nilsson.  

Homeless in the suburbs
Winter and extreme weather drive some unsheltered to sleep in hospital emergency rooms, she said. That's when the cost of not providing permanent housing multiplies. People sleep in waiting rooms, and when asked to leave they might complain of "excruciating back pains.'' "Twenty-eight hundred dollars later they've had a complete workup and spent the night inside the hospital,'' she said. 

St. Stephen's doesn't have the resources to check all of Hennepin County, Nilsson said. Any count is "an undercount,'' with evidence of people sleeping outside in suburban cities as well.

Suburban law enforcement joins in, reporting recently a person sleeping in a car in a parking lot at Centennial Lakes in Edina and a couple sleeping in a tent in Minnetonka behind a strip mall. There is little emergency shelter in suburban cities, yet homeless youth and women particularly are frightened to come to the city for temporary housing, Nilsson said.

The federal government mandates a count once a year, in January, and Wilder Research does a count every three years, but Nilsson says she needs to know how many homeless are sleeping outside so she can order tents and sleeping bags.

It's not that these are meant as permanent housing, she said, only as stop-gap housing until the real thing can be found, but that could be months. Waiting lists for housing are long.

As for Dunavin, a St. Stephen's advocate has added his name to a waiting list for housing.

Monday: What do the homeless cost the community?

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Comments (6)

thanks for this story Ms. Boyd. I think actual stories about real homeless people get us into meaningful conversations about public policy. They also put a face on something that so easily slips under the radar. We cut funding for programs for this population while raising $20-$40 million a year for stadiums- and we don't even make the stadiums open up for the homeless at night! Stories about kids who spend the night in a cardboard box actually distract us from the reality of homelessness. Don't forget, the real homeless are somebodies kids too.

Isn't it nice that Sen. Cruella Klobuchar is doing a lot about the widespread unemployment that is causing more and more homelessness? She puts on her a witch like black suit almost every day, and she heads out for a hard days work of photo ops each day. Senator Cruella does more photo ops than anyone. So don't let anyone say she just does not care about the suffering masses and those huddling in the cold. Those photo ops are a lot of work. Really, really they are.

What is happening with the effort started by the ELCA and the Legislature (other non-profits are also a part of the effort) to end homelessnes by 2020? Has that goal just gone by the wayside? Is it continuing but with a longer forecast?

Great article. If people see the homeless as individual persons with whom they can on some level relate, it will go a long way to solve the problem.

"Don't forget, the real homeless are somebodies kids too."

Yes, they are Paul. And they are someone's brother or sister, too.

But who needs to be reminded of that? Is it the public that is being tasked for the lifetime care and maintenance of their loved ones, or they themselves?

This issue hits home for me. My youngest brother has lived in his truck, in a tent, under a bridge or occasionally at the homes of his brothers and sisters or mom since he was 25 years old.

We have offered to pay for the mental treatment he needs, and we have offered our homes to him but he wants neither; so we send him money when we can track him down. But mostly, he fends for himself.

As far as we know, he's never slept in a homeless shelter, and he's never applied for government benefits, and for that I'm very proud of him.

See, I am my brothers keeper. Not "you" (plural) and most certainly not the government.

There are plenty of people out "on the street" that are alone in this world...they are the ones that need the public's help. For those of us who have family members out there, I'd like to remind them that they too, are their brothers keepers.

I serve on the board of Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation. Our mission is to create homes for persons who are homeless and precariously housed. I believe Paul's comment about kids "who spend the night in a cardboard box" refers to special events such as Night on the Street, sponsored by PCNF on April 16, when more than 325 kids spent the night in cardboard boxes in the parking lot of Plymouth Church. What Paul may not know is that those kids met in small groups with other teens who actually are homeless, and who shared eye-opening stories of how they struggle to survive on the street. What he also may not know is that those kids raised more than $31,000 in order to sleep in boxes, every penny of which will soon go to provide supportive services in PCNF’s 42-unit facility for homeless youth, now under construction at 3700 Nicollet. The awareness that this experience gave to 325 urban and suburban youth, and the dollars these energetic kids raised for a much-needed building, are not a “distraction” to the reality of homelessness. Rather, events like this serve to raise consciousness and promote advocacy to support Minnesota’s efforts to end homelessness.

It's nice that $31,000 dollars are being raised via the night in the box demonstration. We're currently raising $20 million a year for the Twins stadium. The number of homeless in the Twin cities has been rising for the last ten years, boxes or not.

The box thing isn't a complete waist of time, but it's clearly not the solution. All I'm saying is the news stories tend to celebrate affluent suburban kids rather than educate about the homeless. What I like about this series is that it's point of departure is homeless people, not affluent kids are pretending to be homeless for one night.

In some ways it's simply a matter of economy, you only have so much time and space in whatever medium you're presenting news in. If you have 3 minutes to present a story about the homeless why spend three quarters of it talking to kids aren't homeless? Why not start with the homeless kids, under a bridge somewhere, or in a shelter, and then end with the kids who are pretending to be homeless? It's a question of emphasis. Maybe if we change the emphasis in reporting about the homeless we'll raise more awareness and maybe more money.