By Kenza Hadj-Moussa
Kenza Hadj-Moussa is communications director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.
I got an email today from a woman who needed help. Her family wants to volunteer at a homeless shelter on Christmas Day. Every shelter she tried was full, booked with volunteers.
Two weeks before Thanksgiving I took a frantic call from a public-relations officer. She had a charitable Thanksgiving meal reserved at a nice restaurant in St. Paul and nobody to invite. The shelters all had made holiday plans for their guests before the State Fair.
The volunteer coordinator at one Minneapolis shelter changes her voicemail greeting in October to screen volunteer offers for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
We need these volunteers. We're lucky to have people who are so eager to give their time and resources to serve those less fortunate. We need warm meals. But we also need another kind of help: We need people to see homelessness differently.
When you hear the word "homeless," maybe you think of the older man with a cardboard sign on the exit ramp. Or the middle-aged woman carrying bags and a suitcase on Nicollet Mall. Try to erase those pictures. The face of homelessness is not what you think.
Yes, some of Minnesota's homeless suffer from mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, or chemical addiction. But the homeless are also students in your child's classroom. They are cashiers at Target and Walmart. They are tweens, teens and young adults. They like Justin Bieber, "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games." In Minnesota, on any given night, there are about 13,000 of them.
Janet is a 20-something mom with a young daughter. She quit her department store job when her hours were cut. She would be scheduled to work 25 hours, but her boss would send her home when business was slow. Janet couldn't make ends meet. As a low-wage worker, she got no public assistance.
Because she quit her job, Janet was ineligible for unemployment insurance. She cried when she told me it's hard not to be able to feed your child. She turned to the state's welfare program, but monthly cash assistance levels have been flat since 1986. Living on less than $450 per month, Janet and her daughter lost their apartment.
This is a common story.
Thousands of families in our state lack stable housing because their incomes are too low. Jobs are often part-time, temporary or seasonal. A single person may able to survive, but it's extremely difficult with children. There is not enough affordable housing or rental assistance to help low-wage working families.
Homelessness is not a personal problem. It's systemic. Homelessness is not a city problem. It's statewide. Homelessness is not a holiday story. It's year round.
Social services depend on people to bring meals, donations and holiday cheer. A surplus of volunteers on the holidays is a good problem to have. But we must find better solutions. And we won't, until we're willing to look the problem in the eye and see the homeless for who they really are.