Unsolved Mysteries: Annie Anonymous

As we continue to share some of our most perplexing mysteries, I want to share the story of Annie Anonymous. Annie (as we came to call her) showed up at the Breakfast Church wanting to talk to a pastor. This was when I still worked there and when random people showed up- it was usually my job to speak with them. She was likely in her 30’s, fairly put together and easy to talk to. She wanted to meet somewhere private so we met in the conference room. When a single female comes to us and wants to meet privately, one of the first things we think about is an abuse situation and we will make every effort to find a private place to meet.

That wasn’t the case in this situation- at least not entirely. Annie began to tell me her story. It was fascinating and took many twists and turns. As I listened, I tried to figure out what it was she needed from me- other than actively listening. Eventually, she asked me to share resources in the community for housing, employment, food, and any other assistance I could think of. I gave her all the information I had. What was truly mysterious was that while she was telling me lots of details about her situation, she wouldn’t share her name with me. That seemed a little fishy. In most situations, I usually get a name and not many other details! She was also one of those people that could talk forever and it took a lot of re-directing to get her to move on. She assured me she wasn’t in immediate danger and thanked me for my time.

After that sort of strange encounter, I didn’t think of her again until she came up in a care team meeting. We are lucky in this community that those of us who work with people experiencing homelessness or needing assistance talk with each other regularly. It is one of the perks of living in a smaller town and truly has an impact on the ways we can work together. As we were meeting, one of the team asked if anyone of us had had an encounter with a pleasant young woman with a long and maybe beliveable story, but who wouldn’t share any identifying information. Most of us commented yes! She had paid many of us a visit. The team was perplexed as to how to help this young woman and confused about what it was she actually needed. She wasn’t homeless but might be living in a space unfit for human habitation. She might be being stalked, but also her stalker may have been in jail in another state. She might have needed financial assistance, but needed it without giving her name and being in the system. It seemed our friend was making the rounds and sharing a similar story, but not accepting help from any of us because we all require some kind of name (even if it was a made up one).

She continued to bounce from agency to agency. All of us reassuring her that her information was safe, but that we couldn’t provide her with sustainable help unless we had a little bit of information to go on. It appeared that she eventually was homeless- but didn’t share her name with any of the people she spent her days with. Many of them were just as confused about who she was.

I haven’t seen her since last winter and in checking with my street friends, no one has seen her around. I wonder if she has moved on to a different community, if her story has changed, what parts of what she told us were true? It remains an unsolved mystery.

We Are Left to Wonder

His name was Jonny. He was one of the very first people to come into my life and truly teach me what it means to be in ministry with people who are in crisis.

Jonny was almost always in jeans rolled up at the ankles (he wasn’t much taller than me), a t-shirt, and his blue jacket. At least that’s the image that forms in my mind every time I think of him. He was of a similar age to me, but his body bore scars of life that I could only imagine. He showed up one morning at Breakfast Church. I remember sitting in my office and hearing this horrible keening sound coming from the dining room. As I sprung up from my chair, I heard, “ummm, Erica?!” from down the hall and knew that this was a situation that was mine alone. When I got into the commons, Jonny was sitting on the bench right outside the offices. He had a shopping cart next to him that was overflowing with a variety of belongings and he was crying so hard he could hardly breath.

I immediately sat down next to him and gently placed my hand on his shoulder. “Hi, my name is Pastor Erica. Can you take a couple of deep breaths with me?” Together we breathed in and out and he began to settle down. As he slowly started to focus on where he was and come back to the present, he turned to me and said, “I’m sorry for causing a scene.” “No worries. Can you tell me what’s going on so I can maybe help you?” From there his story started to pour out. He had just been evicted from his apartment of 10 years because the building had been sold and it was getting renovated and rent was going to double. Jonny was the sole caregiver for his brother who had multiple disabilities. He was distraught because he had to find a place to live to safely care for his brother and to put all of their stuff. He was panicked about what to do and couldn’t figure out a first step because it all felt so overwhelming.

It’s funny to look back on this time now because I know so much more about community resources – help would have looked a lot different now than it did then. But in that moment, the most important thing was being present. Over the next several months, Breakfast Church became Jonny’s home. He was able to get his brother settled into a group home facility and only had to worry about himself. He had a tent and a sleeping bag and a few of his most treasured possessions.

As the days and weeks dragged on, Jonny began to cope with the stress of survival with drugs and alcohol. Many mornings I would arrive at the church and find him sleeping somewhere on the property, tucked into an alcove or splayed out on the front bench. He would wake up, apologize for being a mess, and then come in for breakfast and coffee. One particular morning he asked if we could talk privately. My custom was to meet with guests out in the commons, but I could tell that Jonny needed more privacy to talk and so I brought him into my office.

He sat down in the rocking chair in the corner of the office and slowly started to rock. “This is nice,” he said. “It feels safe and calm. That’s all I want, safe and calm.” I asked him what that might look like for him. He said he needed to get out of this community and start over. He had some family in Oregon and he thought if he could get there, he could start fresh. I let him know that we could get him a bus ticket. Tears began sliding down his face. “I want to start over. Can you really help me?” Three days later, with a sack lunch full of pb and J’s and trail mix, he got on the bus, headed for Oregon. That was the last I heard from him.

Many years later, I still wonder about him and pray that he has found some safety and calm. It is truly one of the hardest parts of this work. Walking so closely with someone through all the mess and then guiding them on a path toward hope and not knowing how it turns out. So many stories remain unsolved and unresolved… but still live in my memory and leave lessons from our shared journey that shape the why I care for the next story that walks into my life. – Pr. Erica

Unsolved Mysteries: In the Beginning

This is the first in a new series about all the people we encounter through outreach and shelter, who then disappear and we are left wondering what happened to them. This is the story of the first mystery of this type I encountered, which was the beginning of my calling to this ministry. –Pastor Collette

After checking in at the chaplain’s office, I was making my rounds at the hospital, visiting those who were listed as members of my church (Bethlehem Lutheran in Mankato). Paul’s name had been on the list, which surprised me because I hadn’t seen him in a few weeks. He always sat alone in the second row from the front on the pulpit side, his gray hair neatly pulled back into a ponytail. Though he’d been coming for worship regularly and had recently joined the church, I knew very little about him since my colleague had done all of his new member orientation.

I peeked in the room where Paul was supposed to be, but instead of finding him in the bed, I found a housekeeper stripping the bed. This usually means the patient has been discharged, but I thought I’d check with a nurse to be sure. “I’m looking for Paul, who was listed in this room”, I said to the first nurse who walked by. Several emotions quickly crossed her face, and she asked if I was family. “No, I’m his pastor. Did he get discharged?”

“Oh thank God,” she said. “We’ve been trying to figure out who to contact. He died just an hour ago and we have no next of kin listed for him. If we can’t find anyone, we’ll have to release his body to the county.”

So began a week of detective work around Paul’s life, trying to figure out who knew him, whether he had family, who would take responsibility for his body, his burial and honoring his life. Erica was out of town, but I learned from her colleague at the Methodist church that Paul had been a regular at their breakfast ministry, often making and serving the coffee. He had been homeless at one point in the recent past, but had been stably housed in a studio apartment not far from my home for a couple years. He had been in recovery from alcohol abuse for over 40 years and was a strong presence in the recovery community of Mankato.

Still, though many people thought he had family, possibly in Florida, no one knew their names or how to contact them. The hospital ran out of time and released his body to the county. I followed up with all the funeral homes in town to see who would do the preparations, and made sure they knew Pastor Michelle from the Methodist church and I would at least do a graveside service for him.

Finally, two days before his burial, a woman at church told me she knew he had a sister whose husband was a missionary, and that she thought she had tracked down their mission website. I called and emailed, and within a couple of hours I was on the phone with Paul’s sister, telling her what little I knew about how he had died and the plans we were making for his service. They had just returned from overseas, and said they would try to make it for the service.

The morning of the funeral I prayed that his sister and her husband would have an on-time flight from Florida, that someone besides the two of them and we two pastors would show up to honor Paul’s life. By the time I drove out to the rural cemetery where the county had found a free burial plot, I knew Paul’s family were driving down from the Twin Cities. And by the time Pastor Michelle and I had arrived and talked through the plan for the service, the cars and motorcycles started pulling in.

Under the hot Minnesota sunshine, Paul’s family and his pastors were joined by nearly fifty others who’d known and loved him: his recovery community, volunteers and members of the breakfast ministry community, and a few Bethlehem members. Those gathered shared stories of his long sobriety, his consistent willingness to help his neighbor, and his faith. I learned from his family that he had become homeless because he had given all his money away in one of those email scams from a foreign stranger asking for money.

Before Paul’s death, I had never thought about what happened to those who had no family, or at least no listed emergency contact or next of kin. I was appalled to discover how difficult it was to unravel this mystery for someone I saw in worship nearly every week. I vowed that part of my ministry going forward would be to ensure that fewer people ended up unknown and unclaimed in our community.

It was because of Paul that I started going to the breakfast ministry regularly. Erica was kind enough to shepherd me around to the tables, introducing me to the regulars and filling me in on some of their back stories. As a strong introvert, this kind of outreach is still one of the last things I am inclined to do. It was and is deeply uncomfortable, but when I take the risk, I find myself welcomed into the community of those who don’t belong anywhere else. The people I meet at breakfast, through the shelter, and on the street have claimed me as their pastor just as much as I have claimed them. I’m thankful to Paul and so many others for teaching me what it really means to accompany our community’s most vulnerable neighbors.

Hard to House: Not Our Choice

This is our last week in our series on Hard to House.  We hope that you have learned a little as we have shared some of the barriers our guests encounter when it comes to housing.  

K is a fixture in the community.  He has been around a very long time and he has a daily routine that runs like clockwork- in fact I can often tell about what time it is depending on where I encounter him in town.  For many years, he was a complete mystery to me.  I knew that he camped on the outskirts of town and that everyone called him something different.  Peanut Butter man, Survivor Man, Walking Stick guy.  He is a bit of an urban legend- there are so many rumors about who he is and why he has made the choices he has- but very little is actually known about him.  When I worked at Holy Grounds, I got to know him a little better, knowing what he liked for breakfast (Cheerios with orange juice), that he would wear a pair of jeans or tennis shoes until there wasn’t enough fabric or sole left to repair and then he would ask for another pair, as close to the original as possible.  And that he loved living outside, on his own. While on a clean up mission with the homeless liaison officer, I got a glimpse of his elaborate home in the woods and was impressed with his detailed set up. It was truly his home.

Through fits and starts over the last many years, I have built a bit of report with K. I remember how shocked I was when he came into the shelter the first time.  He arrived covered head to toe in snow, we were rotating then and it was in the middle of a polar vortex.  It truly wasn’t safe for him to stay outside and he knew it. He trusted us enough to come out of the elements. He stayed with us for 3-4 nights until the worst of it had passed, then he returned to his campsite.  Each season since, we will usually see him for a few nights at a time when mother nature is especially brutal.  We tell staff that if he shows up, we let him in- no matter how full we are. He will come in and enjoy the hot food and the soft bed, but just as quickly as he shows up, he will go again.  

K would be very easy to house.  He definitely has a history of long term homelessness.  He doesn’t have a criminal record, he doesn’t use drugs or alcohol.  In fact, if he were willing, we could probably have him housed within a month.  But  that is the catch- he isn’t willing. There are very few people that I encounter in this work that choose to live outside, in fact only two come to mind.  But in both cases, these men love their way of life.  There is something about the freedom, the independence, the solitude.  I struggle with this.  Both of the men I am thinking of are older (75 plus).  Both show signs of aging bodies.  I think about how much simpler their lives could be if they had a home.  But then I remind myself that they do in fact have a home and that they are choosing the lifestyle they lead.  They are hard to house only because their definition of ‘house’ is very different from mine.  I am sure that there are some mental health reasons why K chooses to live outside.  But you know what?  He is happy.  He has told me many times how the simplicity of his life makes him happy.  Who am I to judge.  

There may come a time when circumstances change and K will need to seek a different kind of living arrangement.  If that time comes, I know that he will come to us and together we will be able to help him find his next home.  But more than likely- he will just keep on living his way, until one day we notice that we haven’t seen him for a bit, and we will realize that he has passed.  We will probably feel guilty for not trying harder- for not getting him into standard housing.  Hopefully we will also remember that it was his choice to live the way he did and that part of treating people with dignity and respect is honoring their choices- even the ones that make them hard to house.     -Pr. Erica

Hard To House: It’s Complicated

After five years of sheltering unhoused people in our area, we thought we had a pretty good handle on the issues we might encounter and what to do about them. But one guest this season put all our skills to the test, having a set of complicating factors in his story that made him not just hard to house, but completely impossible.

M came to us from county jail, and his public defender called to make sure we would take someone who had a GPS monitor on his ankle. We asked whether he was violent or charged with a sex offense, and when she answered no to both, we said we’d take him and scheduled him for a bed later that week. Looking back (and going forward), we should have asked so many more questions, but it is not uncommon to receive guests straight from jail, so we thought we were prepared.

M arrived a few days later at evening intake, and as we completed his bag check at the door, it became clear that he spoke very little English, and had been given no information about our shelter or what he could expect next with his legal issues. Thankfully, a former co-worker is also a translator and was available on short notice by phone to help with his intake. We got him settled, making sure he had toiletries and a place to plug in his ankle monitor to charge overnight, and felt fairly confident he knew where he was going the next day since we are only open from 6 pm to 8 am. He kept thanking us, and we were taken by his sweetness and eagerness to please from the beginning.

Almost immediately, staff started learning bits of Spanish to help M get along in the shelter, and as more of his story came out, we realized we were in way over our heads. He was charged with Medicaid fraud for a workplace accident that should have never have been charged to medical assistance, but rather worker’s compensation insurance through his employer. However, the company knew that he was not a citizen and working under an assumed name, and since he spoke so little English, his supervisor was able to foist responsibility for his care onto the Mayo Clinic Health System. The accident ultimately resulted in the amputation of one of his toes, the cost of which was so high that when he was eventually charged with fraud, it was at a felony level.

After a week or so in shelter, staff started to notice that M was limping heavily and seemed disoriented and confused. When we were finally able to understand that the toes next to the amputation site were now infected as well, we got him to the ER the same day. Because of the language barrier and the fraudulent charge under his name, he was given very little medical attention, next to no care and released from the ER immediately. We would find out later that the physician who saw him that night should easily have seen that his infection was already in the bone and that M would need further amputation.

That was much later, though, because no one but Open Door Health Clinic who operates our on-site shelter clinic was willing to treat him with dignity and respect. His county social worker, who was only assigned after our shelter staff made a vulnerable adult claim on his behalf, was insistent that he was faking both the severity of his illness and his misunderstanding of the charged against him. His attorney said she could basically only deal with the fraud charge and it could be months before he would even have a trial. And with no ID at all, no citizenship, and a criminal record, paths to housing in our community were completely closed.

One of our staff, Karrey, became a personal crusader on M’s behalf, attending meetings with him, cobbling together enough Spanish to understand what he needed, and driving him to all his wound care appointments. It was because of Karrey that he finally had the second amputation that likely saved his life. Five days after surgery, knowing that he had nowhere to go, the hospital discharged him literally to the curb with no plan and no after care.

Working her own personal miracle, Karrey to found him a place to stay because we knew he wouldn’t survive living outdoors. And even that wasn’t permanent, so we eventually sent him to another shelter in the Twin Cities. His trial is still pending, all parties making clear they’d rather not prosecute and insinuating that no one would look for him if he just disappeared from Minnesota or the U.S. We have all his belongings still, stored for the summer in a locked room, and I expect we will see him again this fall. We will still have no ability to get him housed or connected to services as long as his criminal charges are unresolved. He will have no path to citizenship until then either, though he has worked in this country, both legally and not, for over 25 years. Minnesota is home to him, but none of it’s programs or resources can be his. He wants to work, but is physically unable now, and has no family relationships close enough to take him in.

By the time people make it to Connections, the system our country has set up to serve, protect and assist has already failed them in multiple ways. But in M’s case, the systems seemed to be actively conspiring together to make it impossible for him to get out of the situation he was in. So many people seemed to not care about M, and those that did told us their hands were tied and they were unable to help with breaking rules that would cost them their jobs.

M’s story highlights not only the complicated nature of homelessness, but also how the care that we infuse into the work of sheltering can literally save lives. Everyone gets treated with dignity, regardless of age, race, ability, gender, sexual orientation or immigration status. We keep barriers low to our services because we know our guests already face far too many roadblocks. And while we work hard for our guests, it is going to take systemic change to get some of our complicated cases housed. -Pastor Collette

Hard to House: Criminal Records

Have you ever made a poor choice?  Gotten tangled up in a bad situation?  Done something stupid and lived to regret it?  For most of us, those choices have a limited time span for their consequences and we can move on.  This is often not the case for our guests who are experiencing homelessness. 

T was a frequent guest of the shelter over the course of a couple seasons.  He bounced between treatment, housing, and homelessness.  At the end of the shelter season two years ago, he found himself with nowhere to go.  He hung out in the parks and walked the streets during the day and he tucked away in hidden places throughout the downtown to sleep at night.  One night someone came and attempted to take his stuff while he was sleeping in a public parking garage.  He woke up and his fight or flight response kicked in and he threw a few punches. Cops were called, drug paraphernalia was found and the individual was taken to jail for domestic violence, terroristic threats, and drugs.  It is easy to stand in judgment in this situation.  Yes- this individual was using illegal drugs, yes, they threw a punch, yes they were sleeping in a public parking garage. But when we look a little closer at the situation we realize that this person was woken up out of a deep sleep- fight or flight kicked in and because of past trauma, fight won out.  He was literally protecting the only items he owned.  This man had a history of addiction.  He wasn’t selling drugs,  but he was a user.  Suddenly survival skills and a health condition become crimes and those crimes and convictions lead to records that perpetuate homelessness because landlords aren’t going to rent to a violent drug user.  But hold on a minute- can we really label him a violent drug user?  The man that I have known for the past several years is truly a gentle giant.  He has a problem with addiction.  He has nowhere safe to sleep.  He was protecting his one backpack of possessions.  His choices in that moment added layers to an already difficult life.   

Being homeless is not a crime and yet, so many of the people we work with end up with criminal records.  I guarantee you that in many cases, the stories are similar to the one above.  Hard circumstances, poor choices, a trauma response leading to a significant barrier to getting housing.  Unlike those of us with resources, communities and families that support us, bouncing back from these mistakes is next to impossible.  In our community there are fewer and fewer landlords that will rent to anyone with a drug charge and a criminal history.  At this point, we know of only one and the apartments that are available do not necessarily provide a very fresh start.   As a society, we are criminalizing addiction, mental health, and homelessness.  By doing this, we continue to feed into the cycle of homelessness and create more barriers towards housing.  We do not end homelessness unless we flip our systems of oppression. -Pr. Erica

Hard to House: Addiction

The second in our July series about why some individuals are harder to move to housing than others, this is a post about substance use disorders, especially alcohol and drug addiction.

We make it a policy to avoid calling the police at the shelter, since most of our guests have already had enough trouble with law enforcement to last them several lifetimes. When we do have to call, however, it is almost always because we have a guest who shows up so drunk or high that we cannot safely keep them in shelter. Public safety officers come and administer a breathalyzer or other sobriety test, and then whisk these guests off to detox for 48 hours (the nearest detox facility is in New Ulm, 30 minutes from shelter). Many of them repeat this pattern again and again over the course of a season.

Addiction is such a complicated disease, and often begins as self-medication for undiagnosed mental health issues or as a coping mechanism for the stress that comes with being unhoused, un- or underemployed, and unsupported. There are genetic predispositions as well, and environmental factors, such as exposure to drugs and alcohol at very young ages. For most of our beloved users, the reasons they have become so deeply enmeshed in their addiction are layered as deep as the ocean, and most of them are fearful of diving in, knowing those depths are full of creatures they’d rather not confront.

Our folks with chronic substance use disorders are among the hardest to house. They’ve burned bridges with case workers across the county by failing to show up for appointments, or promising to go to treatment then changing their minds at the last moment, or flunking out of program after program. They have criminal records, especially if their substance of choice is illegal, and in Mankato there is literally one landlord (really, a slumlord) who can be counted on to rent to those with drug offenses. Even for those who go to treatment, who put in the terrible and painful work toward recovery, their pasts follow them closely in a small community like this one, and they are constantly surrounded by those who knew them only as users, and who tempt them regularly to relapse.

True to our name, Connections Ministry strives to bring community and relationships back to the lives of our beloved addicted neighbors, because it is often said that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but connection. We have intentionally set our barriers to obtain shelter low, so that we have a chance to love those whose addiction has lied to them and told them they are unloveable. We continue to maintain relationships even when we have to send people to detox, or temporarily ban them after a substance-fueled disrespectful night at shelter. We know that our chronic users are just as beloved as we are by God, and we also know their belovedness is not often communicated to them by the systems they encounter daily.

Every season, we see some returning folks who remain unhoused largely because of their addiction. Our community lacks resources to treat such deep addiction, and most of what they receive in detox or short jail stints actually worsens their isolation and sense of defeat. Despite these odds, we also see every season folks who do the brave work of deciding to go to treatment, committing to the daily work of recovery, and building new sober lives in this community and elsewhere. All of these neighbors, those seeking recovery and those not there yet, deserve our compassion and connection to adequate resources, love and support. And most of all, they deserve housing, which is foundational to anyone’s ability to find a stable and secure life. –Pastor Collette

Hard to House: Mental Health

This is the first in a series on what can stand in the way of getting those experiencing homelessness housed.

I have known ‘Ben’ for 10 years.  He is one of my favorites.  I know it may seem odd to have a favorite, but Ben will forever be one of mine.  I knew him before we had a shelter.  He attended the breakfast ministry I ran at Centenary every morning and he often slept outside the doors at night. If you could find him a hot cup of black coffee (day or night)  you were treated to his huge smile and generous thanks.  He was usually the first person I saw in the morning and often the last person I would see at the end of the day.  He never asked for much- only what was needed for survival. 

 When we opened the shelter for our initial season, he was our first guest and he stayed with us every night we were open for the next 3 years.  Ben has schizophrenia.  He isn’t under any medical care, managing his mental health by keeping to himself.  He is fearful of government control, he hears voices the rest of us don’t, and he believes that to stay safe he has to rely on himself and very few others.  Each year as the season began to wrap up, we would ask him about trying to get an apartment and he would tell us he was just fine.  That began to shift during his 4th year with us.  He was feeling his age and on several occasions before the season opened told me that he didn’t know how much longer he could sleep outside.  I remember telling a colleague that if I could figure out how to get him housed, it would be one of the best accomplishments of my life.  By season 4, I had earned enough trust with him that he was willing to entertain the idea of housing.

There are many, many steps to getting supportive housing (housing with case management and a little more TLC than regular housing).  We had to begin with getting an ID.  To get an ID, you need a birth certificate and a social security card.  To get a social security card, you need a birth certificate. Ben had no documentation of either.  Makes it kind of tricky.  Throw in a pandemic, government office closures, and huge anxiety around anything related to the government and you can see how difficult it is to get a basic ID.  We took lots of baby steps and I cashed in years of work building trust.  We went together to the government offices.  We sat together to fill out the forms.  I reassured him each step of the way that at the end of all of this, there was housing.  

To be a candidate for supportive housing, you have to have been homeless for at least 3 years and have a documented disability.  We could easily verify the homelessness but documenting his disability was another challenge.  Ben didn’t perceive himself as having a mental health disability and he had no interest in talking to a professional about it.  To those of us that knew him, we knew all it would take was 30 minutes with a psychiatrist and we would have that documentation.  I started reaching out to all of our connections.  Between the county social worker, a helpful psychiatrist,  Colette and myself, we were able to get an appointment.  In talking with Ben, I reassured him that we just needed to document his preference for sleeping outside and his wariness of the government.  The doctor wasn’t going to give him any medicine or treatments, but that this was the only thing standing between him and his own apartment.   I promised that I would go with him if that made him feel better.  

On a sunny spring morning, we went to his appointment.  I was keeping up a constant dialogue with Jesus.  Please let this go well, please don’t let this be the thing that breaks his trust in me.  Please help get this wonderful man housed.  Sure enough, within a few minutes of gentle conversation, we had what we needed and Ben could move to housing.  A few short months later I stopped by his apartment with some coffee and kitchen items.  He was so happy, so at peace, and so grateful not to be sleeping outside.  He proudly showed me around his spotless apartment.  As I left I couldn’t stop the tears from running down my cheeks.  Tears of joy that he was home, tears of frustration at how hard it is for someone with a mental illness to overcome systemic barriers to get housing, and tears of relief that with trust, courage, and a village of connections it can be done. – Pr. Erica

The Story of Stuff: We Don’t Want Your Stuff

We get lots of calls at the shelter.  Many calls are asking about space and resources, but many people call  asking if they can donate their stuff to the shelter.  These are the calls that often leave me a little salty.  Let me explain…

When a guest arrives at the shelter,  one of the first questions is “what do you need?” Sometimes people arrive with bags and bags of their personal items, but even among all of their stuff, they may not have clean underwear, a warm enough coat, or shoes and socks warm enough for winter.   More often,  guests arrive with just what they are wearing and carrying in their pockets.  They need a toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant, socks, and something to sleep in.  Our bottom line at the shelter is to treat all people with dignity.   For our people, dignity isn’t always easy to come by and so we dole it out in heaping spoonfuls and that moment when we can offer new socks and underwear, a fresh toothbrush, sweats to sleep in – we see a little of that dignity restored. 

And this is where I get a little salty about donations.  We are incredibly lucky at Connections in that when we have a need, we can put the word out and 9 times out of 10, that need is met.  From mitten and coat drives, to calls for pajamas and underwear, our community is great at rallying to meet the need.  We need people to answer that call and to step up in abundance.  However,  we have to be picky about what we take.  In the early years of doing this work, I said yes to any donation that was offered.  Yes, I will take your toiletries.  Yes, we will take clothes you are cleaning out of your grandma’s closet.  Yes, we will take all the winter lost and found items from your business.  As more and more things came  through the door, I realized that I needed to say NO more often.  As I started saying no, people would become rather put out.  “But it is decent stuff!  For those people, it’s good enough!”   “It’s a perfectly good___________, it just has some stains.”  “But if you don’t take it, what am I supposed to do with it?” (this is my favorite one- how exactly did your giveaways become my problem??)  

Imagine coming into a shelter and being given the left-overs, the ½ empty bottles of lotion or shampoo.  The sweats that are ratty on the edges and the elastic stretched out- but good enough.  The winter jacket that is better than what you have, but doesn’t actually zip. Giving in this way reinforces the societal commentary that because you are experiencing homeless, you don’t deserve anything but the scraps.  After you have heard this in words and through actions time and time again, you believe it deep in your soul and it is pretty hard to change the narrative.  

So all this to say- we don’t want your stuff.  Your stuff that is good enough, that ‘those’ people should be grateful to have, that you pass off to us because you don’t know what to do with it.  If it isn’t good enough for you, it isn’t good enough for me to pass along to our guests. Yes- we still need donations, but we need ones that are a blessing and not a curse. 

 As I make a graceful dismount from my soap box- 🙂 I want you to try to reframe your thoughts about donations.  Think of them as little donations of dignity.  Buy the new set of sweats from Walmart, fill an order from the amazon wish list, do a new underwear drive at your place of work.  Restore dignity with stuff that says you matter, you are worthy, someone cares.  I promise you- it makes a lasting difference. – Pr. Erica

The Story of Stuff: Magic and Unicorns

While we never like to see families need the shelter, staff and volunteers usually love having kids around.  Even most guests enjoy the shift in energy that kids bring.  This past season, we were blessed to walk with a sweet family made up of a mom, a teenage son and young daughter.  B had a zest for life and a contagious smile.  She quickly charmed the staff and volunteers with her 6 year old sass, her love of coloring and games, and  her endless desire to bake cookies with a willing volunteer.  Her giggle would drift down the hallways in the evening, often breaking the tension or the weariness of the day.   She loved pretending she worked at the shelter, putting up sticky notes with smiley faces and scribbles throughout the staff office.  She was a wonder wrapped in glitter and pink and spunk.  

As her family waited in the shelter for an apartment to open, B’s birthday approached.  She made sure to tell staff, volunteers, and other guests that her BIRTHDAY was coming, so none of us would forget. Birthday’s can be tricky in the shelter.  We don’t want to overwhelm families with an outpouring of gifts but we also want to celebrate those milestones and bring a little sense of normalcy.  Birthday celebrations bring fun and break the monotony of long winter nights. 

We were lucky to have a volunteer who was gifted with the ability to ‘find’ things- often in the dumpsters of big retail establishments.  As B’s birthday month approached, this amazing volunteer presented us with her latest find.  A local party store had recently purged much of their inventory and one of the tossed items was a full set of unicorn birthday party supplies.  B had told us she desperately wanted a unicorn birthday party.  It seemed to be fate.  We hid the supplies in the hidey hole in our office- ready and waiting for birthday day.  Another volunteer called and asked if they could provide some cupcakes for the night of her birthday and our finder of all things volunteer was planning to make a unicorn cake with her daughter.  This party was going to be well sugared! 

The day of B’s birthday arrived.  During the day while the shelter was closed, we gathered the items from their hiding space and began to decorate the shelter.  We hung unicorn streamers from the door to her room and pinned up a giant unicorn poster by the  beverage station.  There were unicorn napkins and pink unicorn confetti for the food table.  Pink, sparkly, unicorn magic exploded all over the space.   Another volunteer had created a beautiful gift bag full of things she and B had enjoyed together at the shelter including special snacks, games, and coloring books.  One of the guests, who often thought of himself as the shelter grandpa, even got her a gift card.  B was a little shocked and maybe a little overwhelmed by it all.  Her normal boisterous personality was a little subdued as she took it all in. Some dreams do come true in the most unexpected ways.  Items pulled from a dumpster, cakes baked in family kitchens, gift cards bought with spare change, all coming together to create a magical 7 year old birthday party.   The story of stuff that creates a special kind of shelter magic, giving everyone a little reprieve from the daily grind- celebrating the mystery of unicorns, the wonder of birthdays, and the joy of a little girl. 

 – Pr. Erica