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