Called to serve those in need

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February 20, 2014 // UPDATED 8:42 pm - March 3, 2014
By: Sarah McKenzie
Monica Nilsson at Simpson's overnight shelter.
Photo by Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie
Monica Nilsson has been an advocate for the homeless for two decades (VIDEO included)

Editor’s note: This profile on Monica Nilsson kicks off a new “Changemaker” series for the Journals spotlighting people who have a powerful impact on the community. To nominate a changemaker, email smckenzie@mnpubs.com.

When people ask Monica Nilsson why there is homelessness, she replies with the answer: “Because it’s the public’s will.”

After two decades of working to improve the lives of the city’s homeless, she’s on a mission to educate people about the nature of the problem and dispel stereotypes.

Nilsson is director of community engagement at St. Stephen’s Human Services, 2309 Nicollet Ave. S.  The nonprofit has experienced rapid growth in recent years and served more than 6,600 people last year. It provides emergency assistance, shelter and helps match people with housing.

“There’s an undercurrent of homelessness ending, just ask any of the housing providers. But unlike a tsunami, the change doesn’t come with such a rush that is evident in a moment’s notice,” she said. “In fact, what we’re now facing in Minneapolis is more like a river, with men and women and children floating down it. Volunteers and professionals from this great city stand at the water’s edge and pull people out every day, some feed them, clothe them, even rent to them. But, right now, we aren’t pulling them out as fast as they are flowing down the river.”

Hennepin County has about 2,000 emergency shelter beds. The largest shelter for single adults is Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center and People Serving People is the largest shelter for families. While there’s a long list of people waiting for affordable housing and a need for more shelter beds, Nilsson points out that there’s never a waiting line for jail. 

Homeless people who end up incarcerated, in detox, HCMC or in shelter rack up significant bills for taxpayers. She’s quick to provide specifics about the cost of spending a night at those places: $363 for jail, $2,800 for HCMC, $350 for detox and $35 for shelter.

Creating more affordable housing opportunities or providing a person experiencing homelessness with a rental subsidy are less expensive options in the long run, she said.

Nilsson is also focused on challenging people’s assumptions about who is homeless. Many people assume most homeless people are panhandlers since that’s what they see, she said.

The majority of the homeless, however, are children. Out of every 100 people experiencing homelessness, 35 are under 18 with parents; one is under 18 without parents; 10 are ages 18 to 21; 25 are women; and 29 are men. Of the adults, 15 are seniors, six are military veterans and four are panhandlers, Nilsson said.

“In reality, there are more homeless elementary students, seniors and workers that are homeless than there are panhandlers,” she said.

A school bus or a student’s backpack is as better symbol to illustrate the reality of today’s homelessness crisis than a cardboard box, she said.

Minneapolis Public Schools estimates it has about 2,000 homeless or highly mobile students, said Elizabeth Hinz, the district liaison for homeless and highly mobile students at MPS.  That figure is from a point-in-time count this school year, but the number is likely much higher, she said. 

Overall, about 7,000 children and youth were identified as homeless in the city last year, she said. About 4,000 students attended MPS and 3,000 either attended schools in St. Paul or the suburbs or were too young to attend school. 

Hinz said Nilsson has been a leader in spreading the word about the unexpectedly high numbers of homeless students in the city. 

"Monica is a truth-teller, and she says the unpleasant from her well-spring of hope," Hinz said. "We are so fortunate to have her with us." 

Nilsson developed a passion for working with people in poverty after volunteering overnight at Simpson’s overnight shelter with her brother.

She was 26 at the time and got to the shelter after people had gone to sleep on mats on the floor. 

“When I walked into the shelter and saw that, number one, I couldn’t believe my eyes and number two, I immediately thought of all the people driving along Nicollet Avenue and I thought nobody would believe what's down here because I couldn’t believe it,” Nilsson said.

She became a regular volunteer at Simpson and later got hired as shelter director.

“I felt a calling to do this work, and I don’t mean for that to sound religious,” she said. “Something struck me when I was exposed to the issue of homelessness.”

Nilsson also worked at the Bridge for Youth and the Hearth Connection before she was hired at St. Stephen’s.

She’s also a cancer survivor — an experience that deepened her empathy for people in poverty facing serious illnesses.

Margaret Miles, director of development and communications at St. Stephen’s, first met Nilsson when she volunteered at Simpson. Nilsson was in medical school at the time, but eventually decided to end her studies and devote herself to work at the shelter. 

“When she was diagnosed with cancer her attention turned to publicizing the impossible challenge of folks experiencing homelessness who also had to deal with cancer and chemo," Miles said.  

Nilsson has also played a critical role in St. Stephen’s street outreach work, which has reduced the number of people sleeping outside in the city. It is one of the top priorities of the Heading Home Hennepin plan — a vision to end homelessness in the county unveiled in 2006.

Cathy ten Broeke, the state’s point person on ending homelessness and the former director of the city/county office to end homelessness, said community leaders had goals to forge better relationships with the police and businesses and focus on matching people living on the streets with housing.

“Monica was the person we turned to make this happen and she did it brilliantly,” she said. “The program she built continues and in partnership with St. Stephen’s housing team is largely responsible for reducing the number of people sleeping outside in Minneapolis and Hennepin County.”

Andrea Christenson, a commercial real estate broker with Cassidy Turley and a former member of the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association (DMNA), became friends with Nilsson after she took DMNA members on a tour of homeless shelters.

“I aspire to someday have as much of an impact on the poor and disenfranchised as she has,” Christenson said.  

St. Stephen’s also has a theatrical component — zAmya, which has funding from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council to launch a play the second week in April exploring how homelessness impacts people in downtown Minneapolis.

There will be free performances April 6–15 at a number of downtown locations.

While the work is challenging and carries with it plenty of heartache, Nilsson remains optimistic.

“What gives me hope? The community is listening. We shelter people. We house people. People who are homeless are so incredibly resilient. We work together,” she said. “If we can find our common threads: that we don’t want people to suffer, that we want thriving neighborhoods which are safe and that we want economic vitality in the heart of the state of Minnesota, we can come to a more prosperous place for all of us.  The question is what kind of heart do we want to have.”