Before a brutally cold night, outreach workers hit the streets

Giving gloves and socks
St. Stephen's Street Outreach workers Ethna McKiernan, left, and Lam Truong provide Ernest French with socks and gloves as French panhandles in Minneapolis, Minn. Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011. McKiernan and Truong work the streets of Minneapolis, reaching out the homeless community, trying to build relationships that lead to housing for those in need.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Walking down a freeway ramp near downtown Minneapolis, Lam Truong reminds his co-worker Ethna McKiernan to keep to one side of the road.

"So the cars don't hit us," he says.

The destination is an underpass, a popular campsite for homeless people in warmer weather. They find only one resident.

He emerges from a heap of clothing and sleeping bags he's fashioned into a kind of cocoon to ward off the cold.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Thursday night into Friday morning is expected to be the coldest night of the winter so far. Even so, Truong and McKiernan, outreach workers with St. Stephen's Human Services, predict a number of people will sleep out of doors on this chilly night.

The man under the underpass declines to be interviewed or photographed.

Truong has known the man for years, who has declined offers of help. McKiernan says there are many reasons why some choose to live outside rather than a shelter.

"It may be they have PTSD and can't be next to 150 other men on mats that are an inch away and tension is so high," McKiernan says. "It may be their sobriety is threatened in a place where there's a lot of dealing and drinking."


McKiernan and Truong stop at a nearby freeway ramp to check on another familiar face.

Ernest French, 63, is holding a sign and begging.

Talking with a homeless resident
St. Stephen's Street Outreach worker Lam Truong talks with a homeless resident under a highway bridge in Minneapolis, Minn. Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"So how are you doing, what kind of afternoon is it, Ernest?" asks McKiernan.

"Slow and very cold," French responds.

French says he's a native of Memphis, and a Vietnam-era military veteran. McKiernan hands him a new pair of gloves and socks.

Truong gets on the phone with the Veterans Administration in Minneapolis, and asks an office worker there if French is eligible for any veterans benefits.

Truong hands his phone over so the two can talk. French takes a phone number and makes an appointment at a VA office.

French says he hopes to get an evening meal at the downtown Minneapolis Salvation Army, and then a place to stay at a St. Paul shelter.

Truong says French has been in and out of various kinds of housing over the past couple of years.

Later in the afternoon, the VA worker calls Truong back.

Visiting the IDS Center
St. Stephen's Street Outreach worker Ethna McKiernan talks with a man in the IDS Center courtyard in Minneapolis, Minn. Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"They couldn't find him in the system," Truong says.

Truong says there could be any number of reasons, including a less-than-honorable military discharge, which can block access to benefits.

Truong says that can be cleaned up, but it takes time.

A criminal record of almost any kind, in or out of the military, can prevent people from getting housing or a job and contribute to homelessness.

McKiernan says once a month, St. Stephen's Human Services workers bring clients before a Hennepin County judge to deal with problems.

"Usually they're for small, petty livability charges which will get dismissed in a certain period of time if they choose to work with St. Stephen's and comply with our requests," McKiernan says.


One of the most troubling encounters on this day comes on the Nicollet Mall, where Truong and McKiernan stop to visit with another familiar face.

A young man is sitting on a snow-covered bench without hat or gloves. He's shivering as McKiernan hands him a bus token and invites him to meet with her the next day to talk about his health.

"Something I need to do is get that medical opinion back in again," the young man says.

Visiting the Dunwoody area
St. Stephen's Street Outreach worker Lam Truong helps fellow worker Ethna McKiernan over a street barrier in Minneapolis, Minn. Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011. McKiernan and Truong are out working with the homeless in the community four days a week.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"And I can also help you find a psychiatrist too, so I'd love to see you tomorrow morning," McKiernan tells him.

McKiernan says in her own experience, which is backed up by surveys, mental health problems affect a large number of people who are homeless.

At the end of the day, Truong and McKiernan have talked with a dozen people in different circumstances. Many have agreed to some kind of assistance, if even just another visit.

Truong says he's not disappointed when homeless people don't accept his help.

"I have to remember that I have to meet them where they're at. It's not where I'm at," Truong says, prompting some ribbing from McKiernan.

"He's pretty noble, isn't he?" said McKiernan.

McKiernan admits to some disappointment.

"You're sad that someone has lost housing because of the choices they've made, or just the mental illness they've had," McKiernan says. "You can get frustrated and sad, but mostly you just keep on truckin'."


Most homeless people will try to find shelter tonight. The Salvation Army's Harbor Light in downtown Minneapolis can accommodate as many as 500 people each night.

Demand is already up about 15 percent over last year, but the cold is causing a drastic spike, said Annette Bauer, a Salvation Army spokeswoman.

"We are still short about 50 beds," Bauer said. "We won't let people go stay outside in cold weather like this even if we don't have a mat for them. We'd put them in a chair if we have to, but we'd prefer to give them a little more comfort."

A survey done by the St. Paul-based Wilder Center shows more than 9,500 people a day are homeless in Minnesota, up more than 20 percent from the previous survey.

The numbers were collected in 2009 just as the effects of the recession were widening.

(MPR reporter Jess Mador contributed to this report.)