Monday night (January 30) Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Apple Valley hosted a conversation about homelessness in Dakota County with members of a variety of faith communities, homeless advocates, County staff, elected officials and people experiencing homelessness. It was heartwarming and overwhelming to see 220 people show up. They were there to learn how to be part of the solution. (Get handout from the event.)
With hundreds in the room, it was a 12 year old girl who livestreamed the event via Facebook. It was a first-time experiment so the quality varies – but you can view it below. (You can also track Tweets from the event.)
The night started with Monica Nilsson, a homeless advocate and consultant, giving a brief history of recent crisis shelter operations and homelessness in Dakota County. The shelter opened during a cold snap in mid-December. It closed the day after Christmas when no temporary site was identified and reopened for another three weeks in January at Easter Lutheran Church in Eagan. In six weeks it housed 78 people. It opened because Dakota County saw the need, especially in the bitter cold weather, and offered funds for the first 4 nights. It opened because local churches were ready, willing and able to donate space, funding and resources (clothing, food, toiletries) and many volunteers. It opened because there were professional staff that were able to support the needs of the guests. And it remained open because of generous donations made by individuals through a GoFundMe campaign.
Then there was a panel of community educators, each had firsthand experience with homelessness. Sasha, Alex, Nick, Elena, Matt, Josh, James and Rick bravely told their stories. Each was well spoken, some had jobs, even while homeless; each had a unique story but there were themes. The first theme – each had just one or two incidents that put them in a vulnerable position. For one it was illness, another was injury, one was separated from her spouse, another suffered from poor and uninformed choices made by her parents. So many people just one step away from homelessness.
Another recurring theme was the difficulty in escaping homelessness. Being without shelter means carrying everything you own – always. Being without shelter means no ready access to a shower or laundry facilities. Being without shelter means you’re always thinking about a roof, warmth, food and how to get clean-even if you have a job. And people treat you differently when you appear homeless. It becomes more difficult to spend hours at the coffee shop or fast food restaurant – managers will ask you to leave after 30 minutes of sitting.
There was an open discussion about how it felt to be homeless and what attendees could do to help keep people from being homeless and/or help them find homes. What did guests and former guests want? Human interaction and communication. Opportunity! One panelist said she had the money for an apartment but her applications were continually turned down. She just wanted an opportunity. And then there were more basic needs too – clean clothes, a gas card, Cub card…
The meeting lasted 90 minutes and the time flew. There were several policymakers in the room including, Representative Erin Maye Quade, Senator Jim Carlson, Representative Laurie Halverson, Angie Craig, County Commissioner Liz Workman and other elected officials. People left energized, asking what could they do next. The long term plan for Dakota County is a permanent shelter for men and women age 18+.