Making connections

A firsthand account of volunteering at Project Homeless Connect

Along with 1,300 other volunteers, I waited for the Minneapolis Convention Center doors to open on April 28 and usher in hundreds of people experiencing homelessness.

Somewhere outside were the people I would assist that day: a teenage couple engaged to be married, a hardened veteran of the streets, and an articulate college student. (Note: At the request of project organizers, the names of people interviewed for this story have been changed to protect their identities.)

We were charged to help people navigate the maze of services available to them. People could get a tooth pulled, look for a job, get a birth certificate, see a doctor, create a voicemail system, apply for benefits, or talk to someone about a place to live — all under one roof in one day. Project Homeless Connect is intended to be a one-stop shop that can eliminate barriers to housing.

For example, if attendees can get haircuts and free bus passes, they might have a better shot at job interviews they line up at the event.

Hennepin County and the city of Minneapolis put together the first event in December 2005, following a model of one-stop service that started in San
Francisco.

The event now takes place twice each year, and the number served has grown from 500 people at the first event to 3,000 people on April 28.

***

When the convention center doors finally opened, Natalie, age 17, plopped down beside me. She was a pretty girl with glossy hair and a deep voice. Later she would tell me that she was transgender, and she’d pull up her wig to reveal closely cropped hair underneath. She said people are always surprised to hear she’s homeless because she’s careful to groom herself and take good care of her wig.

Her boyfriend Justin soon joined her. They had been dating for seven or eight months and got engaged a couple of weeks ago.

The couple wanted to find an apartment together, so they figured they either needed to get jobs or both receive General Assistance. It didn’t seem to matter much to them what route they took, so long as they found a way to live together. Justin said he might request a letter from a doctor saying he had “depression or anxiety or whatever” and couldn’t work.

Their first stop that morning was the employment area. Staff from employers and training programs sat at tables around the room and described their job opportunities.

“I am so frustrated,” Natalie repeated over and over. Justin wanted to land a job that day, but a service provider explained that no employer would simply hire him on the spot.

“So you’re telling me that I do this training program, and then it could be six months before I actually get a job?” he asked another agency. When a service worker replied yes, he said thanks, whirled around and walked away.

When asked about his long-term goals, Justin said he wanted money. He asked me if it was possible to get a credit card using money from another credit card.

When asked about her long-term goals, Natalie mentioned that she had gone to college for a while, majoring in interior design and business.

They seemed most at ease while in the line for shoe vouchers. They ran into friends at every turn, and they hugged and kissed, drawing giggles from others in line.

“He ain’t going nowhere, and I ain’t going nowhere,” Natalie said.

***

The next person I met was John, a Chippewa Native American from Red Lake who said he had been homeless since 1973.

He said he became homeless after working a job laying carpet. His knee started bothering him, and the employers let him go, saying they didn’t want to be sued if John got a serious injury while on the job.

He came to Minneapolis when his friends promised to watch out for him — and they did. That doesn’t mean living on the streets has been easy, he said. John said it can be unbelievably cold at night.

Right now he’s living at a group home, a place that will house him for the next 60 days so long as he doesn’t get in a fight.

During our intake session, John briefly considered a trip up to dental care because he is missing a row of teeth. He said he was minding his own business when someone cracked him in the back with a bat, and when he turned around someone swung the bat into his jaw.

John said he was very appreciative that I was nice to him. Not all service workers are nice, he said, and some of them act like it’s coming out of their own pockets. He said his family raised a pig in Red Lake that was about as big as I am.

He decided to forego the dentist visit and stand in a long line for a birth certificate.

“If you want help, you’ve got to have patience,” he said.

But he didn’t have enough patience for the next line to get a state ID.

On his way out the door, he picked up a pair of gloves that were sitting alone on a chair.

***

Kevin is a college student, and he treated his homeless status as another subject of study. He knew which shelters had the best savings plans, and he knew nearly as much about housing options as the service providers. He quoted factoids from old stories I had written, and he talked about the economics of treating homelessness. He thinks the 1950s notion of a man supporting an entire family on one income is completely unrealistic in today’s market.

He is three-quarters of the way toward finishing a University of Minnesota engineering degree, but now he is seeking treatment for situational depression and troubles with cognition and memory. He had a doctor’s appointment scheduled for later in the week. The return of his health was working against him the day of Project Homeless Connect. With no income coming in, his chance at getting an apartment would be greatly increased if a doctor could provide him with a note saying he couldn’t work because of a mental imbalance. I told Kevin it seemed as though all he needed was a job interview to get him off the streets.

Kevin said it isn’t that simple.

Employers recognize the address of a shelter, he said, so he’s in the first tier of people that are weeded out of an applicant pool.

In addition, finding housing is difficult because he’s been evicted from an apartment in the past.

After chatting with a housing provider, Kevin visited the benefits area to grab a form for his upcoming doctor appointment, and he saw the chiropractor because his leg had been going numb.

He offered me a chicken finger from his to-go dinner, and wished me luck in my writing career.

Heading home Hennepin

Project Homeless Connect will someday be obsolete, if the Heading Home Hennepin project works as planned.

The 10-year plan to end homelessness in Hennepin County is in its second year of implementation. The pile of plans includes better mental health care for the homeless, a permanent one-stop shop for homeless resources, and expanded outreach.

Last October, four outreach workers started to target areas like Nicollet Mall to try to bring people off the streets and connect them with the resources they need. The workers are also focusing on people who are sleeping outside and people that police identify as chronic offenders. The outreach workers have so far housed 24 people.

One of the most challenging aspects of the Heading Home Hennepin project is the goal to create 5,000 new housing opportunities in the county.

The following is a sample of some of the plan’s goals and how they have been met so far.

Goal: Ensure that recently resettled refugees do not become homeless.
2007: A new program helped deliver an 80 percent reduction in refugee families staying at Mary’s Place, from 60 people in January 2007 to 12 at the end of the year.

Goal: In 2007, produce 90 housing opportunities, 10 host homes and 30 shelter beds for youth.
2007: Achieved 95 new opportunities, 13 host homes, and reopened 15 beds.

Goal: Two hundred adults experiencing homelessness will find employment paying $10/hour or more in 2007.
2007: Baseline data was being developed to measure progress, and a survey tool was in development that would study service providers and how they handle employment offerings.

Goal: In 2007, produce 75 new units and 175 tenant-based rental assistance opportunities for long-term homeless adults.
2007: 64 new units were closed, 40 were in development, and 191 opportunities for tenant-based rental assistance were developed and funded.

Goal: Identify a location in 2007 for a daytime “Opportunity Center” where people experiencing homelessness can connect with multiple services in one location.
2007: The county requested $2.5 million in state bonding for the center, and the University of Minnesota offered to help with design and implementation. Focus groups were underway to gauge interest in the center and determine the needed services and best location.

Goal: In 2007, produce 90 new units and 300 tenant-based rental assistance opportunities for the long-term and short-term homeless.
2007: 54 units were closed and 22 were in development. Using rental assistance, they achieved 140 scattered site opportunities.

Reach Michelle Bruch at 436-4372 or [email protected]