A homeless shelter offers lessons on life

Published 9:14 am Friday, March 15, 2013

Column: Creative Connections, by Sara Aeikens

How often does choosing to take part in an event become a simple way not only to learn something interesting, but also to open up new ways for us to be of service? It may even be outside our comfort zone.

Sara Aeikens

Sara Aeikens

I had a chance to do all those things by saying yes to an invitation to join a local church youth group participating in serving one of the daily meals at South Minneapolis Simpson Shelter. Nearly a dozen of our community youth enthusiastically donned hairnets and served a complete meal to more than 100 men and women, both hungry and homeless, in a United Methodist church basement. City regulations require overnight shelters be sponsored by a church.

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According to staff, 3 1/2 years is the average length of homelessness in the Twin Cities area. In their values statement the program encourages people to “draw upon their strengths and promote the power of self-advocacy.” Some of those who transition out of long-term homelessness come back for meals and to encourage others.

While the homeless population in Minnesota averaged over 10,000 in 2012 (Wilder study), on our shelter tour it was estimated homelessness in our state is now around 14,000 people. Many sleep in their cars, or with family or friends. The Simpson Shelter fills up immediately every night. A daily lottery system is used based on a sign up list and those selected are assigned a bed number.

Everyone housed must be 18 years old, so there are no children at this facility. Sleeping spaces for 45 men are provided and about one-sixth of the males are veterans. Around 2 1/2 years ago the women’s side opened up with 22 spaces available. Six for each gender are reserved for last minute needs, as there are many who are disabled. The doors are locked at 10 p.m. nightly.

Both areas have mats for sleeping and are carpeted. A warm meal, showers, laundry, wooden lockers and plastic bag storage spaces for belongings are available, as well as couches in the TV area that are sometimes used to provide respite from outside elements. It is not a “sober only” shelter, but if individuals act out or misbehave they will be asked to leave. A staff member stated “no one would be kicked out onto the street.” The shelter will help seek other alternatives for the homeless.

The average age of shelter residents is between 40 and 70 years. Every day each person packs up their belongings that are not in the storage area so the custodians can clean between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. They may keep a bed around a month if they are receiving a Social Security check, working, in a treatment program or have a plan.

As part of a local church mission outreach, about a half-dozen Albert Lea adults accompanied the young people and helped carry into the shelter kitchen large containers full of salads, bread, lasagna and homemade desserts provided by local United Methodists for the meal. Volunteer drivers and grocery donors transformed into food choppers, dessert cutters and food plate arrangers under the guidance of our organized and flexible kitchen leader from the home church.

We worked together in the kitchen for most of the afternoon and then washed tables, arranged place settings and lined up food for serving at 7 p.m. Even in an unfamiliar kitchen, we still had time to hear the history of the shelter from the volunteer coordinator as he gave us a tour of the facility.

While standing near the shelter office door, the man directly in front of me received his mail from a staff person. He was so pleased that a disability check finally arrived, after waiting for what he said was months, that he turned around to enthusiastically tell me his dream for his future.

He wanted to start a program for others in similar situations to his. He thought those interested could work together to start a charity with local branches based on the AA model. He believed it was better to raise money as a group for the charity and distribute it to people rather than them asking for help by themselves. He then reached next to me where a collapsible 4-foot pole used to collect donations leaned against the wall. He explained how that pole with its blue-triangle net at the end helped him survive during his transition time of homelessness.

I also spoke with three Hispanic men at one of the dozen meal tables, using Spanish from my Peace Corps training. Soon one of the Albert Lea youth taking Spanish at the high school sat down to join us in speaking both Spanish and English.

Conversation covered what working in construction or trucking is like, how hard it is to stay away from family for long periods of time and finding a job when not much work is available. I got a sense from the young female student that she learned a lot from that half a day of new experiences and it could help direct her to serve others in her future.

My visit to the Simpson Shelter motivated me both to write a summary and to share during recent discussions what I learned about the shelter’s resources and present needs.

After our kitchen cleanup, the volunteer coordinator related details to us about an Internet contest the Simpson Shelter has entered and gained a position as one of five finalists. The national contest, sponsored by Ikea, allows people to vote once daily until March 30. The prize for the winner is a $25,000 customized kitchen makeover.

When I did my last daily vote, Simpson Shelter had pulled ahead to first place with a margin of just over 5,900 votes. It is one more way for me to help a place where service and community are bringing people together from many walks of life and filling a deep need. Thank you for being interested in updating about the homeless in Minnesota and responding in ways you think work best.

Website for voting: www.rescueremodel.com.

For more about Simpson Housing Services contact: jvodicka@simpsonhousing.org.


Sara Aeikens is an Albert Lea resident.