Homelessness: A story about us

Today’s must-read story is MPR News reporter Tim Nelson’s report on what’s happening around the Dorothy Day Center, the homeless shelter in downtown St. Paul where homelessness is putting so much pressure on the place that a tent city pops up around it each night.


Tents were set up near the Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul nightly during the summer months. Hart Van Denburg/MPR News

Third world, anyone?

How people end up homeless varies, of course. But there’s no question, despite what you might read in the comments sections, that bad luck by people already on the edge is a factor.

That includes Leticia Bell, 52, a mother of three who can sometimes be found at dawn sleeping on the grass nearby. Sometimes dozens sleep wrapped up in tarps or camped out in rows of tents along West 7th Street.

Her last job was as cook at a Grand Avenue restaurant. Before that she worked at a hotel, but she had knee surgery earlier this summer and couldn’t be on her feet. She said she and her mom can’t get along and she had to move out a few months ago. She doesn’t want to burden her kids.

“What do I have here? Well, I have my cardboard obviously,” she said. “You have to start with a piece of cardboard. Then you put your blanket down, then you put your sleeping bag over it. And all I have is my work uniform. You know, some socks and underwear, a couple pairs of pants, my hygiene products. I’ve got a flashlight and an umbrella. And some books. And that’s about it.”

She also keeps a piece of steel rebar handy. “I sleep with that at night when I’m out here. Just in case,” she said. “You never know what’s going to happen. Somebody got robbed yesterday.”

That’s a jaw-dropping description of reality but it’s nothing compared to this: Not many people are going to give a rip.

Homelessness as an issue has been increasing since the ’80s. Millions of stories have been produced and yet it’s the one issue that people walk away from without any sense of obligation.

If anything, we’ve become desensitized to the problem. Though it’s an increasing story on the streets, you’ll not a hear a word about it in any coverage of issues in the coming election. Not a single word.

Maybe this isn’t a story about “them.” Maybe it’s a story about us.

Related: Homeless people who found missing boy declare: ‘We’re not heroes’ (San Jose Mercury News).

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    The state has been on a pretty significant effort against homelessness going back to the Pawlenty administration.

    • He talked a good game, vowing an end to homelessness by 2010.

      Actions did not match words, and he blamed the recession.

      “Some adjustments had to be made,” he said. Like, you know, ending homelessness.

      He also wiped out GAMC.

      “If you want to not end long-term homelessness, this was a pretty good idea for it,” Monica Nilsson, director of outreach at St. Stephen’s Human Services in Minneapolis said. “Because if you want to see a lot more people walking around downtown talking to themselves, take away their antipsychotics.”

      • kevinfromminneapolis

        I don’t think anyone would argue that a recession would have a negative impact on homelessness no matter how hard you try, so I would say results didn’t match words. It says right there the state spent $215 million on it and made progress four straight years. I would call that action.

        Of course then I’m left to wonder how we spent $215 million and couldn’t come up with 4,000 beds.

  • MikeB

    The headline is apt, it is about the rest of us and what we are willing to (not) do about this.

  • Kevin D. Hendricks

    This is why I applaud the work of Project Home, a St. Paul Area Council of Churches project that hosts the overflow family shelter for Ramsey County in different churches each month.

    If you want to know more about the rising homelessness problem, Mark Horvath and his InvisiblePeople.tv site is a great resource. He gathered a number of stories from people across the country, including folks outside the Dorothy Day center in 2009: Jody and Phillip, Pearl, Darryl, Jim. And another one in 2010: Ka’e k’e.