Higher demand for homeless services stresses those who helpby Rupa Shenoy, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis — For homeless outreach workers, always-hard decisions get even more difficult as the weather gets colder.
Just last week, St. Stephen's shelter director Allysen Hoberg had to make one of those decisions when a man who had broken the rules at the River of Life overflow shelter in north Minneapolis asked to spend the night anyway.
"If we catch anybody breaking a rule, drinking on the property or whatever, they're kicked out for a month. So he had wanted to see if we could lift that policy for him," Hoberg said. "We said no."
Sending people away for any reason is a decision Hoberg has had to make more often as the number of people looking for beds rises. Since the national economic downturn began, the number of homeless people has increased but funding for programs is down. That's taken a toll on those in need — and those trying to help.
Workers often are trying to help those who are at their most desperate point. Norman Brewer has been coming to the St. Stephen's shelter since it opened last year. He admits he's considered suicide. For him, the people at this shelter make the difference.
"I consider they my family and my friends," he said. "That means a whole lot to me."
That sentiment, expressed by many homeless, is a daily consolation for people who work with them. But Hoberg's job doesn't pay a lot, and she's a single mom with her own problems. Last week she reached a breaking point in the middle of a meeting.
"I just said I'm going in my office and cry now," she said. "I just got up and walked out of the room. And I don't think I've ever done that in my life."
People who work with the homeless population each have their own challenges. Those include balancing an increasing workload with their personal life. Counselor Jill Fyre-Anderson of West Central Communities Action Inc. has worked more hours over the few past years because she's had more people to help.
"My husband at one time said to me, 'you know, am I more important than your job?'" Fyre-Anderson recalled. "It was a real conversation about 'everyone is as important as you are' and I think that's always hard to tell your spouse."
As a counselor to a rural population, Fyre-Anderson spends most of her time on the phone. She said that means she has to try harder to show homeless people that someone cares about their situation.
"I find myself doing a lot of listening. I think most of my conversations are me nodding my head, which they can't see, but that's what I'm here doing," she said.
In the Twin Cities suburbs, many of the newly homeless are formerly middle-class families. Social worker Katie McKenna of Volunteers Enlisted to Help People (VEAP) said they're often shocked by the starkness of poverty. There are no shelters in the suburbs, and McKenna said many initially resist when she advises them to go to shelters in the city.
McKenna said she's learned to not judge people who see their own situation as desperate while there may be many people are far worse off.
"How do you explain to people that their lifestyle has changed and it may never go back to the way it was?" she said. "We take a client-centered approach to try to not judge. But also to say 'this is the reality of the situation.'"
Those who work with homeless people share the daily stress of not being able to do enough. Jennifer Schultz runs church food programs in northeast Minneapolis. In that area, she's seen more and more children walk through the doors.
Schultz admits to a sad irony: wanting to help people who fall through the gaps but having to turn some of them away.
"You have to decide who's need is greatest, and serve those people, and you have to create a gap that somebody's going to fall through," Schultz said. "Then you're just another part of that institution that in some way even though it's trying to do good is maintaining the existence of the problem."
Schultz and others who work with homeless people say they're pulled along from one day to the next by their successes: the few people they can help. The economic downtown has forced social service agencies to work together in a way they never have.
That could mean more effective help for the people who need it. And Schultz said that makes fighting a crisis that never seems to abate worth it.
- Morning Edition, 11/21/2011, 7:25 a.m.