The reasons for homelessness number as many as the individuals who are currently experiencing it.
I remember meeting Clemme a while back. She was staying at the Simpson Housing Women’s Shelter. The night I met her was one of those February days that happen just when you think we’ve turned the corner on winter in Minnesota: minus zero, windy and pitch black. Clemme was curled up on her mat on the floor, devouring a paperback, waiting for dinner. She was of remarkably good cheer.
At the time, Clemme was unemployed, but she had worked much of her life as a printing press operator. Undiagnosed diabetes had sent her into a coma a few years ago. First she lost her job and then her home. Medical bills mounted up. She worked temp jobs whenever she could find them, but it had been tough getting back on track. Loss of a job compounded by medical conditions and medical debt can be a significant contributor to homelessness.
Last November, I helped Simpson shelter advocates move Bill into his new apartment in a South Minneapolis high-rise. Bill had been staying at the men’s shelter for a few months, getting up at 4 a.m. to catch two buses to his job as a machine operator and fabricator. He was earning a decent wage, but a family dispute left him suddenly without a place to live. Taking part in the Simpson Savings Program, where shelter guests turn over a portion of their income to Simpson for safekeeping, secured Bill a bed for three months to help him get back on his feet. A change in family circumstance without a friend or relative to help you out is, according to many who work directly with people experiencing homelessness, a common cause. Not too long ago, I got a note from Bill and he is doing great in his apartment with the view of the Minneapolis skyline.
Ray had bounced around the country for much of his adult life, sleeping by creeks so he could take a bath and sometimes in the culvert of a ditch with a board placed over the water. He had found his way to a local shelter and an advocate noticed that he seemed to be depressed quite a bit of the time. A social worker who visited the shelter hooked him up with a psychiatrist who was able to treat his long-undiagnosed depression with medication and therapy. He was housed with the help of the Simpson Single Adult Rental Assistance Program in a studio apartment near the University of Minnesota. He now takes yoga classes and is a nursing assistant. I saw Ray around the start of the new year, and he looked about 10 years younger than I first met him two years ago. Undiagnosed and untreated mental illness is another major contributor.
But what can you do to help? Julie Manworren, executive director of Simpson Housing Services and long-time advocate for the homeless community, offers the following: “When people have housing and support services, other problems can be overcome. Our community is stronger. We need everyone to talk to their elected officials urging support for state and federal funding for affordable housing and support services,” she says. “The best thing that each of us can do to end homelessness is to do something. Break down the division between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Make eye contact, say hello, volunteer your time and talents to an agency that is dedicated to serving people experiencing homelessness.”
Eric Johnson is the communication and marketing manager for Simpson Housing Services in Whittier. The Simpson blog is at www.simpsonhousing.org.