Minnesota Sounds and Voices: Margaret Lovejoy’s Family Place

By Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio News

msv_homeless_lovejoy450.jpgThe Family Place founder and executive director Margaret Lovejoy said her service provides community roots for families, both when they are there and after they leave. (MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson)

“I heard a child one cold January morning say to his mother, ‘How will I find you after school?'” Margaret Lovejoy remembers.

The child was homeless. The words were jarring. And Lovejoy was spurred to look beyond sadness and pity. Today, The Family Place, a St. Paul daytime drop in center for the homeless, stands as a testament to how she strives to help those who often don’t have anyone else in the community to turn to.

“Some of them have lost all their possessions. They’ve lost connections with relatives because they’ve moved away to a different part of the country. Sometimes they’ve lost almost everything except what they can carry,” she says.

Even though the center’s kitchen, dining room and common areas are open, clean and welcoming, with staff and computers in place to help families find jobs and housing, Lovejoy says that, at first, many of the homeless families she sees are angry and sad.

msv_homeless_jackson450.jpgThe Family Place director of parent and childrens’ programs Kimmeth Jackson conducts a weekly gathering with clients in St. Paul, Minn. Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011. (MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson)

“I cried and cried and cried, like, I don’t know what I’m going to do, I don’t have any money,” says one of the center’s visitors, Tywanda Stewart.

The 41-year-old mother of four lost one of her two part-time jobs last summer, couldn’t afford to pay rent, didn’t have any family or friends who could help, and couldn’t find room at a shelter.

“It got down to the last 30 minutes that the sheriff was going to come and remove me from my home,” she says. But that’s when space for five opened up at The Family Place, allowing her family to spend their daytime hours there, and nights in Ramsey County’s emergency shelter system.

That was six months ago. Since then, with help from The Family Place community, Stewart and her children found a rent-subsidized apartment in Fridley. The kids are in school, the youngest may have a daycare slot soon, and Stewart is taking classes to get her GED while working part time.

msv_homeless_spann450.jpgTracy Spann, 19, reviews for a drivers permit test during quiet time at The Family Place in St. Paul, Minn. Monday, Oct. 31, 2011. The Family Place is the only day shelter in Ramsey County for families who don’t have permanent housing. (MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson)

Lovejoy’s own community was torn apart by bulldozers when she was a child — Interstate 94 construction ripped through Rondo, her St. Paul neighborhood, knocking down homes, and closing businesses. She says that before the destruction, the sense of community was so strong neighbors called parents to report any shenanigans.

“And by the time I got home my mother would say, “Well, what were you doing?'”

Lovejoy moved back to the area as an adult, and joined with others repairing the community fabric — to the point where, if she were in need, she could knock on a neighbor’s door for help.

Rebuilding community is part of her solution for ending homelessness. It’s a strategy that’s easy to put into words but fraught with complications and hobbled by lack of money.

“It’s tedious the way I think it about it, but you pretty much have to do it one person at a time, and then once you get one person on their feet, then they help someone else,” she says. Then the recession hit, and homelessness, led by a sharp rise in the number of homeless children, is up. Wilder Research puts the number of homeless in Minnesota at 13,000 people – and thousands of children — on any given night. A third of them are children.

msv_homeless_familyplace450.jpgBreana and her husband James, who declined to provide last names, pack up to leave The Family Place in St. Paul, Minn. Monday, Oct. 31, 2011. The couple spent six days at The Family Place. (MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson)

It’s as though babies keep floating down a stream, Lovejoy says. She and others serving the homeless pull them out, but that’s not solving the problem.

“We need to go upstream and see what’s happening in our economy, what’s happening in our society,” she says. “Why are these babies being put in the water in the first place?”

In the meantime, Lovejoy says the number of homeless babies she’s seeing is growing.

“Ten years ago, you’d find a baby every six months, and now you’re finding one every six hours.”