Wilder Foundation revives Chautauqua to educate about homelessness

YouthLink case manager Jessica Erdman, left, asks Jazzie Gordon, 18, about her experiences as a homeless youth Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, at the YouthLink drop-in center in Minneapolis.

The St. Paul-based Wilder Foundation will try something new –and very old– Wednesday night. In order to increase understanding of homelessness, the nonprofit organization known for its human services research will hold a Chautauqua-style event.

“Chautauqua is actually kind of a throwback to when we didn’t have all the different tools we have today,” said Wilder President and CEO MayKao Hang. “It used to be that people would pitch these large tents outside. They would pop up all over the country and be learning opportunities for the community.”

Like Chautauqua assemblies popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the event aims to entertain while it educates. The evening will include spoken word, storytelling, music, lecture, and a performance of “There’s No Place Like Home,” featuring zAmya Theater Project.

“It’s a fun format, but it also gets the message across about how homelessness is rising, and how it creates instability for families and people in the community,” said Hang, who hopes the evening will bust some myths about homelessness. “It’s getting some shared understanding about what homelessness is, and what it truly looks like, and who’s experiencing it.”

To that end, Wilder researchers will present results from the organization’s most recent homeless study.

That study estimates about 14,000 Minnesotans were homeless on any given night in 2012, up from 13,100 in 2009. Nearly half of the homeless in Minnesota are 21 years old or younger.

Seventy-seven percent of homeless adults have a high school diploma or GED. Almost one-quarter of homeless adults are employed, and 8 percent are working full-time.

Hang said the evening will also focus on solutions.

“I think it’s making sure that the public and the community understand that sometimes it’s not as easy as saying, ‘Here’s a home, why don’t you go into this home?'” said Hang. “There’s support services that need to be present.”

But while the issue can be complicated, Hang said Wilder aims to inspire the audience to get involved.

The consequences of doing nothing are severe, she said, especially given the number of homeless children in Minnesota.

“It’s a lot of young families, and we know that if we don’t stabilize them, we’re going to really lose two generations of people,” Hang said. “Children who are homeless are much more likely to be homeless again.”

The event from 7pm to 9pm at the Wilder Center in St. Paul is free and open to the public, but seats are limited and registration is required to attend.