Ending homelessness by changing minds

Members of the zAmya Theater Troupe rehearsed their Christmas show. The troupe's homeless, formerly homeless and housed actors come together to present transformative community theater.

Where We Live / St. Stephen’s Human Services

Contact information: 2309 Nicollet Ave. S. / 612-874-0311
Website: ststephensmpls.org
Founded: 1981
Number served: 8,000 people in 2015

Every Monday night, a long line forms outside the Simpson Homeless Shelter on 28th Street just off Nicollet Avenue. At 5 p.m., the doors open and 100 or so homeless men find seats on couches and chairs, waiting for the housing lottery that starts in 30 minutes.

Only a handful of them will win a 28-day stay in one of the three South Minneapolis shelters that share this lottery: Simpson’s, St. Stephen’s and Our Saviour’s. The women’s lottery is held on Wednesdays, and there are even fewer beds available for them.

Monica Nilsson, director of community engagement for St. Stephen’s Human Services, said many people have misconceptions about the homeless.

“A lot of people think they know the face of homelessness. They associate homelessness with a panhandler they’ve seen on a street corner. We’re working hard to change that perception, because the face of homelessness could belong to anyone,” she said. “If you took the whole homeless population of Minnesota and condensed it into 100 people, this is what they’d look like. Twenty-nine would be men, 25 would be women, 10 would be young adults (18-21), one would be under 18 and on their own, and 35 would be under 18 with one or both parents. Out of the 100, only four would describe themselves as panhandlers.”

St. Stephen’s Human Services has been working to help the poor and homeless in the Twin Cities since the 1981.

“In the last couple of years, we’ve started looking at volunteerism differently,” Nilsson said. “We’ll always need donations of money, food and supplies, but we’re really here to help people who aren’t homeless connect with people who are. “We believe that learning is service too, and we have two very direct ways to engage in learning here.”

The first is called “A Day in the Life,” which is an experiential learning program, a day spent seeing what it feels like to be homeless. It offers a unique opportunity to engage with, and be educated by, people who have experienced homelessness and extreme poverty. Participants hear personal stories, and learn first-hand how racism and economic oppression squash the human spirit. They buy their lunch with $2.50 in food stamps and spend time talking with residents in homeless shelters and transitional housing facilities. At the end of the day, St. Stephen’s staff present an overview of ways that participants can continue to engage in the work of ending homelessness.

The second opportunity for learning is to watch a performance of St. Stephen’s resident theater troupe zAmya (Sanskrit word for aiming at peace). Their plays explain how and why people become homeless, and are always followed by a question and answer session. zAmya is available for bookings in every kind of venue from schools to faith communities to leadership conferences. The troupe is made up of actors who are homeless, previously homeless and/or deeply concerned about the issue.

“No one can develop real compassion until they are ready to feel another person’s pain, and that can only happen with direct experience,” Nilsson said.


Get involved

Contact Monica Nilsson at 612-767-4456 or [email protected] to learn about participating in “A Day in the Life” or for details about upcoming zAmaya performances (or to book one).

Find out who represents you at all levels of government.

Contact your mayor, representatives, congressperson, senators, even the president, to express support for programs to end homelessness.

Last but not least, don’t ignore panhandlers or people who appear to be homeless. Whether you choose to give money or not, acknowledge their humanity with a nod and a smile.

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About our Where We Live project

This project is an ongoing series spearheaded by Journals’ publisher Janis Hall showcasing Minneapolis nonprofits doing important work in the community. The editorial team has selected organizations to spotlight.