Looking into the Eyes of Homelessness

Interviewing a homeless person is humbling and thought-provoking

The Wilder Foundation is a non-profit social services organization that combines direct service, research and community initiatives to address the needs of vulnerable people in St. Paul and the surrounding area.  They also do research about the needs facing our communities.  One of those areas of research is homelessness in Minnesota.  Since 1991, they have conducted a comprehensive statewide study every three years engaging the assistance of nearly 1,000 volunteers.  A month ago, a handful of people from my church had the privilege of being among those volunteers.


We were provided with detailed training materials and were also invited to an in-person session.  During the study, which occurs over a 24-hour period of time to capture an unduplicated view, volunteers are sent to 400 emergency shelters and transitional housing facilities throughout the state.  There are also volunteers on the street, some going to non-shelter locations such as encampments and abandoned buildings while others ride city busses through the night, giving bus passes to homeless teens and urging them to go to an interview site.  Each individual interviewed is paid $5 cash.  Three years ago 4800 people were interviewed across the state and the study found that homelessness had risen 25% from 2006. The youngest person interviewed was 11 years old.  The youngest ever interviewed since the project began was nine.  I was stunned to learn that children that young were fending for themselves.


I was sent to a transitional housing facility. At the training I’d learned that transitional housing typically allows a three to nine-month stay and occasionally as long as 24 months.  Emergency shelters allow 30-day stays.


As I drove to the facility where I would spend five hours, I was nervous. I had no idea what to expect, what the people would be like or if it would be scary.  I wanted to do a good job for Wilder and I wanted to be fully present for each person I’d encounter.


The interview form is incredibly detailed with 130 questions and can take an hour to go through.  My interviews took place in the facility’s dining hall where we sat in a booth across from each other.  I interviewed five people— Larry, Cheryl, Rick, Darren and Don.* Three black men. One white woman. One Hispanic man.  They ranged in age from 41 to 59.   The interview questions are highly personal.  There are questions about sources of income for the month (will you get money from relatives or friends, from donating blood, begging on the street, or engaging in sexual activity). The only source of income for each of those I met with was $92 per month from General Assistance.  There are questions about physical health (do you have hepatitis, HIV, diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases), about mental health (have you been diagnosed as schizophrenic, bipolar, or having PTSD), about your home life, about abuse as a child or adult, if you’d ever considered suicide (two had), when you had last spoken to a relative. There were questions about drug and alcohol abuse, job history and barriers to employment and whether you consider yourself an alcoholic.


Each of my five folks had had had issues with alcohol at some point in time and had been in detox (from one time to 20 times for one man) and they each dealt with mental health issues as well. Each had been homeless for a long period (from two years to more than five) and to my surprise, each had been in touch with a relative within the week. They all had at least a high school education or GED and two had attended college with one being a college grad. Each came from a seemingly normal childhood home.  I saw in none of them any “attitude” about their situation, no blame or anger or evidence of a victim mentality.  They were well spoken, pleasant, patient, and were thoughtful and candid in their answers.  They were polite and respectful and every one had a sense of humor. They were regular people who happened to be homeless


I don’t know specifically how Larry, Cheryl, Rick, Darren or Don became homeless.  I only got a brief glimpse into their lives. I had the privilege of sitting with them for an hour and looking into their eyes as they answered questions, and I was certain that the depth of each of their stories is profound.  I have thought of them often.  As we approach Thanksgiving, I wonder where they will be.  As I plan my turkey dinner and know I’ll be with family and friends in the comfort of a home filled with the stuff of life that gives me safety and comfort and pleasure, I continue to think of them. Will they eat at the housing facility. Will the relative that each had spoken to have them over for dinner. Or will they they be alone. Will they ever have a real home again. What will be the turning point to that end. What help do they need.  What can I do? What can we do?  The words of Jesus come to mind. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”


The experience was humbling and thought-provoking. It filled me with gratitude for what I have and with sadness for the many who have so little. 


In 2010, there were an estimated 7900 homeless people in Minnesota. The challenge before us is huge.


*Names changed to protect confidentiality

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Tom Kouri November 21, 2012 at 04:50 PM
Awesome post Carol!


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