Homelessness in unexpected places

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March 21, 2014
By: Monica Nilsson
Monica Nilsson

I attended my first Vikings tailgating party at the Metrodome last season. Not having ever participated in this pre-game ritual, I confess that I approached it with some bias. With years of experience working with people who are homeless, I expected that homeless people would be threaded throughout the area around the stadium, panhandling on corners, begging and bothering the residents of greater Minnesota and tourists who were attending the game. I thought I might even see a few men taking a “poor man’s vacation,” bumming a drink off an unsuspecting reveler. I also didn’t expect that Vikings’ fans would be very interested in discussing public policy issues like homelessness.

The first gentlemen I chatted with at 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning were from three generations of the same family, sharing cold beers and hot brats from the back of their pickup truck. I told them I was there to gather information for a theater project about how homeless people impact the downtown.  Expecting to be rebuffed, their first question to me was, “What about the military veterans? You see, all three of us are vets.” I said that I worked at St. Stephen’s Human Services and that we have a program called the zAmya Theater Project which performs shows that tell the story of homelessness in our community. They noted, “It’s not just a Minneapolis issue; we have a few people sleeping in their cars where we’re from in Marshall, Minn.” I thanked them for talking and moved on to what appeared to be a fish house on wheels.

Two folks sat near the glowing fireplace inside, across from a full-length sofa. Others mingled outside in the lot. Joined by Maren Ward, founder of Bedlam Theater and the one who directs the zAmya cast of mostly actors who have experienced homelessness, I asked the tailgaters if they encountered homeless people at home games. The gentleman on the couch remarked, “Well, you’re talking to one. I haven't had work for a long time and I’ve been moving between friends. I was lucky to get a ticket today.” 

Next, we visited the “Emergency Bag Check,” an outdoor coat check-like station meant to secure backpacks or large handbags since the Metrodome only allowed small purses. With four or five queues, I approached and asked security how often they see a homeless person hanging around on game days.  In a low voice, she replied, “Well actually, you’re talking to one. I haven’t been getting enough hours between jobs, so I don’t have a place to live.” She mentioned that those who came to work the best dressed and pressed got to work security on the field, which was fun, while others secured fans’ belongings. Then she asked if she could have my business card and call me tomorrow. She had to get back to work. 

Maren and I walked through the food area, where I finally saw a couple of the guys I know from the streets and the shelter, but one of them had a security wand in his hand and was clearing a fan for entrance. 

Finally, we approached a group of young fans, 20 or 30 some-things who had a buffet set up, a bean bag toss game, and dance music blaring. Again, surprisingly, they were happy to talk. I pointed to an attractive 10-story building above them and asked if they knew what it was. They said no. I said it’s the largest shelter in the state, People Serving People, 109 rooms for homeless families. 

They said they park at that spot every home game and never knew it was a homeless shelter. I asked them if they knew much about people who are homeless. Did they know that 46 percent of the homeless are children under the age of 21, that many people in homeless shelters are families, and that there are senior citizens and veterans who are homeless too. They said no and asked us if we wanted a beer. That was our cue to leave, mission accomplished.

Now, I will admit that even I, who has been in this work nearly 20 years, was surprised by my time tailgating at the Metrodome. I realized that homeless people were, indeed, threaded throughout, but they were working as security, concessions, maintenance and ticketing staff.

I also had to admit that my preconceived bias about certain people was wrong. Vikings fans did care about homeless people, some were even homeless themselves. Maren and I learned a lot through our tailgating conversations that will provide new material for our upcoming zAmya shows.

My day at the Metrodome also led me to rethink our state’s investments. As our Legislature considers how to spend a billion dollars this session, they are wise to pay attention to a campaign called Homes for All, seeking $100 million of that $1 billion for the production or preservation of affordable apartments. The homeless woman securing backpacks and large handbags will be better pressed and dressed if she has a place for her iron. 

With $346 million in bonding already awarded to build the Vikings a new home, $100 million is a sensible investment for people like Kevin.  With housing that met his current income and services to assist in stabilizing, his body and spirit now removed from the trauma of homelessness has helped him land a new job.  He starts on a building crew for the future stadium next month.  

Monica Nilsson, who was recently featured in the Journals, is an advocate for children, teens, their parents and single adults who are at risk of losing their home or are now homeless. Contact her for conversation at St Stephen’s Human Services, mnilsson@ststephensmpls.org or 481-9501. This is the debut of a new column she’ll be writing for the Journals. 

FYI …
To attend an April free performance of the St Stephen’s Human Services zAmya Theater Project, please visit www.ststephensmpls.org for more info.