“Living in the shadows”: a new approach to tackle homelessness offers a glimmer of hope to Minnesotans living on the margins

In the shadow of a concrete underground passage, Jesse Wendt and Nancy Wolf peered under a pile of blankets at the first light of a December dawn obscured by swirls of snow.

It was 14 degrees without the wind chill, and the couple were about to embark on their elaborate morning ritual. First, they would inspect the surrounding sidewalk to see if any of their possessions had been stolen overnight. Then, amid the din of rush hour traffic, they meticulously loaded a portable oven, eight blankets, a thin shag rug, bags of clothes, and a thick stick for protection into two shopping carts.

By 9 a.m., the couple and their mini-trailer had set out down a busy Richfield road in search of a hot cup of coffee and refuge from the cold. Dozens of cars passed and many people slowed down to admire the hooded figures pushing their carts. No one offered to help until an older man stopped and handed Wendt a pair of new snow boots. “It means so much,” said Wendt, 43, after the man left. “Because there are times when we feel invisible.”

While they represent less than a quarter of Minnesota’s homeless population, people sleeping outside in the elements and not in shelters pose a persistent challenge.

Many drift from bridge to bridge and from park to park, risking frostbite and death, to avoid being seen and to stay out of harm’s way. Some, like Wendt and Wolf, prefer the independence of the street to the emergency shelter system and its multitude of rules. A combination of other factors – including escalating violence on the streets, lack of affordable apartments and a resurgence of COVID-19 – is pushing the “unprotected” further to the fringes of the Twin Cities metropolitan area, where they are even further cut off from support networks, say homeless agencies.

But there are signs of hope for this hard-to-reach population. Across Minnesota, county agencies and nonprofit organizations that raise awareness are increasingly adopting a “housing first” strategy, in which anyone identified as homeless is offered stable housing without preconditions such as sobriety or employment. The strategy is based on the simple but redefining idea that until a person’s housing is taken care of, other issues such as addiction, mental health and employment status cannot be addressed. adequately.

In Hennepin County, with the largest homeless populationn at 3,000, officials take this model to the streets.

Over the past month, they began deploying mobile teams of social workers – 30 in total – to parks, highway underpasses, transit stations, shelters and other spaces to assess the conditions. immediate needs and remove barriers to stable housing. The outreach effort marks an important change: in the past, the emergency shelter system was the primary route to housing for homeless individuals and families. As a result, people who avoided shelters and slept mainly outside did not have the same access to services.

The goal of this effort, according to county officials, is to help 1,000 people move into permanent housing each year – a goal that, if achieved, would reduce the homeless population by about a third. Hennepin County shelter. Already since this spring, thanks to more focused outreach and better data analysis, the county has more than doubled the pace at which it is transitioning people who are chronically homeless in permanent accommodation.

“Before, we had spreadsheets and databases showing who [homeless] shelters, but that was it. We knew the problem, but we were only hoping for a solution, ”said Mark Legler, senior planning analyst for Hennepin County. Office to end roaming. “Now we are really looking to find the solution. “

Highlighting the urgency of the problem, hundreds of people marched through downtown Minneapolis Thursday night to honor the more than 200 people who lost their lives while homeless in 2021. Grabbing signs with the names of the dead, they marched in silence, attracting long looks from commuters at rush hour. Homicides, drug overdoses and cancer were the three most common causes of death among homeless people who lost their lives this year. The average age of death was only 41, about half the age Average life expectancy for the Minnesotans, according to data communicated to the event organizers.

“Think about the huge impact: it’s 20 to 30 years of personality, character, wealth, everything we lose when these lives are taken far too early,” said Steve Horsfield, executive director of Simpson Housing Services, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that serves homeless and homeless people.

Wendt and Wolf know the dangers of life on the streets all too well.

Wolf, who has deep, empathetic blue eyes and a slight build, keeps a box of Mace in his coat and a staff nearby to ward off potential attackers at night. People are yelling at them through their car windows, and an angry driver has even tried to get them off the sidewalk in her SUV, the couple said. They sleep exposed to the elements because they fear that a tent will limit their visibility at night and prevent them from spotting attackers or thieves.

“We’re trying to be out in the open because at least there are witnesses,” Wolf said. “But someday or night someone won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. And then what? We’re totally exposed.”

Like many who live on the streets, Wendt and Wolf cannot trace their descent into homelessness to a single episode or event.

Four years ago, Wendt was working full time as a manager at a restaurant in the Mall of America and Wolf had a stable job as a certified medical assistant. When the pandemic hit, Wendt lost his job and the couple decided to go it alone and start a home cleaning and Airbnbs business in Minneapolis. But work was too sporadic to pay the bills, and soon the couple found themselves spending temporary stays in customer garages sleeping near train tracks and under bridges.

They eventually settled on a wide strip of sidewalk under a freeway overpass in the metro’s southern suburb of Richfield, as it seemed isolated and more immune to the gunfire and homicides that swept through Minneapolis.

But finding a toilet, or even a sink to wash your face and hands, is a constant struggle. There are no public toilets near their makeshift sleeping site, so they have to navigate a network of private toilets maintained at local stores and businesses. But the store staff have come to recognize the pair with their shopping carts full of blankets, and sometimes give them dirty looks or angrily knock on the bathroom door to get them to leave.

Wendt said he spent 19 weeks in the spring and summer without taking a single shower.

“Even a shower started to become a privilege,” said Wolf, brushing his auburn hair while warming up in a Cub Foods supermarket. “You’re sick of always feeling dirty.” “

Sometimes passing motorists mistakenly assume the couple is injured – or even dead – and call for help. One recent morning, as they lay peacefully on the sidewalk, the couple woke up to the bright lights of a fire engine and to the sight of paramedics rushing towards them with oxygen masks. “If people stopped long enough to watch, they would see that we are breathing and that we are alive and well,” Wolf said. “We have lived in the shadows.”

A laundromat open 24 hours a day is one of their rare shelters against the cold and the clamor of the streets. Amid the hypnotic whirlwind of washing machines, the couple will pull out a collection of colored pencils and make intricate sketches of the cityscape and the people they know or have seen on the street. For the most part, people leave the couple here alone, and they usually leave with their freshly laundered clothes stacked in bundles on their shopping carts.

Over the past year, living on the streets, the couple said they were twice visited by non-profit homeless outreach workers who offered them immediate shelter. In both cases, they refused help because they were told they should leave their shopping carts behind with all their belongings or sleep in separate units. “All we have here is each other,” Wolf said.

But months of sleeping on cement took a physical and mental toll. Right before Thanksgiving, Wolf began to experience sharp pains around his ribs and chest, which made it even more difficult to push their 100-pound carts across snow-covered sidewalks. She has considered going to a hospital emergency room, but fears their belongings will be lost or stolen if she is kept overnight. On many evenings, dinner consists of hot water from gas station coffee machines poured over instant noodles.

“It’s a struggle here to do anything – absolutely whatever,” said Wolf. “The reality is, it’s only been so long that we can go on living like this.”

As darkness fell on a Monday night, Wendt turned a long piece of plywood into a makeshift broom and scraped off mud, snow, and cigarette butts where they lay down for the night on a thin pile of foam pads. Using their shopping carts as barriers against the wind, the couple crawled under the covers in their winter hats.

They were barely visible in the flickering light of a distant street lamp as they pressed their bodies together to warm themselves.

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