On the front lines of homelessness

On any given night in Hennepin County, at least 2,800 people are experiencing homelessness, the majority in Minneapolis. After spending time with Mary Gallini, a Housing Resource Specialist with Simpson Housing Services, you get the sense that she has met most of them.

Currently, Mary heads the newly developed Simpson Single Adult Rental Assistance (SARA) program, provided in partnership with St. Stephen’s Human Services. The SARA program works with long-term homeless single adults (an average of 13 years), finding them housing and helping them to maintain it. Mary has worked with the homeless community most of her adult life, including a stint as the shelter director at Simpson. “The whole time I worked in the shelter, the goal was always to get people beyond the shelter,” she said. “With the start-up help of the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation we were able to begin a program that helps bridge the gap to people getting and maintaining their housing.”

Mary’s work is not an exact science. She is part counselor, part advocate, part ear to bend, part taskmaster. “This kind of work requires some hard decisions. It is about setting boundaries and expectations,” she said. A large part of the success of the SARA program can be attributed to the weekly contact and open lines of communication between clients and advocates. “When we meet with the people in our program, we usually spend the first 20 minutes or so listening to what they have to say. That is what is missing in many of their lives; a family member or level-headed friend to help problem-solve. This is something we all need in our lives,” she said.

In 2007, 87 percent of 32 participants were stably housed and 78 percent maintained or increased their income.

The SARA program works with shelter guests from the Simpson, St. Stephen’s, and Our Saviour’s shelters in South Minneapolis. Priority is given to those who have experienced the longest time on the street. “What causes a person to become homeless,” is a question that people who work in the field get used to hearing.

“There are a lot of personal and societal causes that need to be considered. In the 1980s, there was a loss of a lot of blue-collar jobs and a shortage of that kind of work. Urban renewal collided with this and caused a loss of affordable housing. Fifteen to 20 years later we are seeing the effects,” Mary said.

Quite often, people experiencing homelessness have a combination of factors working against them, including generational poverty and a history of foster care. Eighty-one percent of participants live with a chemical dependency, nearly 41 percent live with a mental illness and 41 percent have suffered from a head trauma at some point in their life.

“Usually what has caused the person to be homeless is only made worse by the rough life on the street,” Mary said.

Mary’s latest endeavor is the overseeing of the new Simpson Women’s Housing Partnership, provided in partnership with Spectrum Mental Health Services, dedicated to the placement and support of single adult women into housing. The program works with the most frequent guests at the Simpson Women’s shelter and the first gender-specific program of its kind in the nation.

The issues of homelessness and the numbers affected can seem daunting, yet those who work in the front lines remain generally optimistic.

“This can be fixed if we really decide that we want to,” she said. “It requires honestly assessing people’s strengths and barriers and creating a variety of housing options to meet their needs. The government will need to change its priorities for there to be enough money to make this happen. I always like to remind people that those in need of these programs are someone’s brother, aunt, or parent and now we’re seeing how likely each one is to succeed if they are given a chance and treated with dignity.”

Eric Johnson is the communication and marketing manager for Simpson Housing Services in Whittier. The Simpson blog is at www.simpsonhousing.org.