What to do when someone asks for spare change

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April 17, 2014 // UPDATED 7:27 pm - April 18, 2014
By: Monica Nilsson
Monica Nilsson

Spring brings the welcome opportunity to finally be outside for patio eating, walks or runs and farmers markets.  It also brings a return of the cardboard citizens and some who become sheltered by the sky.

Perhaps no question is asked more of a homeless advocate than, “what do you do when someone says, 'can you spare some change'?" Minneapolis is positioned like no other city in this state to address public issues of homelessness:  the young adult begging outside a shop by holding a sign, the woman sleeping in the park, the bush or under a bridge or even the man wandering and mumbling to himself or you or the pavement that he's a living ghost. 

St. Stephen's Human Services operates a street outreach team that has two goals:  respond to public issues of homelessness that warrant a social service response, when appropriate, in lieu of or compliment to law enforcement and move people into housing. 

Anyone can call the team at 612-879-7624 and describe what you are seeing.  Perhaps, you see a woman unpacking her bag and filling it and unpacking it and filling it, all day long, on the sidewalk outside your condo.  Drivers may notice someone who appears to be sleeping outside in an area or someone panhandling on the side of the road.  Describe the person and the location and the team responds as they are able, Monday through Saturday.  The team is not 24/7 so if necessary, leave a message.  That same person in need will very likely be in the same spot in the same clothes the next time the outreach team is available.

The challenge we are up against as a community is that we don’t have enough shelter beds, but we also know that shelter is not the long term answer. Shelter is not housing. Ask anyone who works in the field of housing what the long-term solution is and you will hear only one answer, build apartments. 

As a community, we have created all the “styles” of housing we need.  We just don't have enough of each.  Ask any developer if building apartments to rent for $150 to $600 is profitable and you will hear only one answer, no.  So, we must either subsidize the developers to build housing for all income levels or return to a public investment in subsidized housing.  For those who don't follow the day to day of housing development and may think that (the often used term) “section 8” type of federally subsidized housing grows each year, 70,000 units were lost nationally just in the last 12 months. 

What can you do when someone says, “can you spare some change?”  You can ignore them.  Though that won't create long-term change.  A better suggestion would be to say, “no but I wish you well.”  If the setting is appropriate, you can offer to call St. Stephen's for them or not even ask and just call.  Put the number in your cell phone if you think you're going to pass folks in need in the course of your day.  As a homeless teen girl once painted on a sign, “keep your coins, we want change." When people's needs of poverty, loneliness, chemical or mental health are addressed, the person disappears — not like a ghost rather a person out of sight at home.

Additionally, beginning in May, those who work or live, pray or play in Minneapolis can attend monthly meetings downtown to discuss homeless concerns. G4S Secure Solutions at the City Center and Hennepin Theater Trust's New Century Theater are offering space to have a monthly conversation beginning Tuesday, May 6 from 11:30–1 p.m. Bring your lunch, come and go as you like.  Conversations will be with and about homeless people, people who used to panhandle and don't anymore, advocates who have information to share and are eager to listen.  We hear the business owner who says that business is about doing business first.  We hear the resident who speaks of being afraid to walk home.  We hear the server who says people don't want to dine on the restaurant's patio (and tip her) if there are people in desperate behavior nearby.  Solutions are available if we decide it is our priority.

Monthly conversations on homelessness will also occur at the Minneapolis Central library, a site that has become a very beautiful day shelter for homeless people when 800 beds are closed daily at 7 a.m. Stay tuned for details on that monthly gathering.

If you prefer to act from the comfort of your own home, you may choose to contact your legislator and say that you agree that $100 million of the $1 billion dollar bonding bill they are about to pass should go to build or rehab apartments for those who can't pay $900 a month.  Yes, your call or email to them matters.

There's one more thing you can do.  While we are patient around the pothole repair work and construction of new residential, commercial, industrial and retail properties this season, be patient with the scaffolding being built around the cardboard citizens.  It may not be visible at first, the work that is being done to secure the footing of someone who is in a traumatizing time. The scaffolding will rise unseen as the applications have been submitted for housing, the resumes have gone out or the medicine slowly takes effect.  Have faith, though, like our second season of construction, homelessness ends, too.  It just takes a lot longer than anyone would choose.

Monica Nilsson 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.