Homeless need help with food after they leave shelters

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Crystal Blaski and her sons Joshua (left) and Anthony (right) get three square meals a day at the Family Service Center, a homeless shelter for Ramsey County families.

Crystal Blaski once found it hard to feed her two children.

Blaski, 23, knocked on her neighbors’ doors asking for food. She skipped meals so her kids could eat. She even stole baby formula.

But that changed last month, when Blaski found shelter at Catholic Charities’ Family Service Center in Maplewood. There, she and her children, ages 1 and 3, get three square meals a day.

This afternoon on the MPR News program All Things Considered, we explore how a group in Ramsey County aims to improve the quality of food that shelters and free meal programs provide.

Many homeless Minnesotans rely on those meals. But one of the toughest moments for people who struggle with hunger is when they leave the shelter, advocates say.

When she finds permanent housing, Blaski will once again have to figure out how to feed her children.

Homeless families typically have the most trouble finding food before they enter a shelter and immediately after they leave, said Patrick Ness, policy director at the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.

Years ago, Ness worked as a housing advocate. He remembers moving people into empty apartments.

“They wouldn’t have a chair to sit in, much less a pot to boil their macaroni and cheese in, or a can opener to open those string beans they got from the food shelf,” he recalled. “They had nothing.”

He said families often spend their money on a damage deposit or first month’s rent.

“At the end of the night, it’s got to be a bittersweet feeling, to realize that you and your family are finally home, and your kids are looking at you wondering what they’re going to eat at night,” Ness said. “And you have nothing to offer them except some potato chips from the corner store.”

These days, agencies are doing everything they can to help people with that transition, said Cathy ten Broeke, director of the Minneapolis/Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness.

“We wouldn’t just plop them down and say, ‘Good luck.’ ” she said. “We would do everything we could to make sure it is a sustainable situation.”

After leaving a shelter, some people need help setting up their homes, ten Broeke said.

Some agencies provide cooking supplies. Others provide food for the first couple of meals. They make sure people are signed up for food stamps if they’re eligible.

Still, it can be a tough time for people, as they set up their new homes.

“I think those people are more likely to be hungry and have food instability than the folks that are literally homeless,” ten Broeke said.

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