Thursday, June 29, 2006

Facing the golden years on the streets

When we think of homeless persons, we may picture a man pushing a shopping cart filled with aluminum cans or standing on a corner with a sign asking for money. We don't necessarily think of the elderly living on the streets. They do. The segment of homeless people aged 55 and over is growing.

Minneapolis — This is what's known on the street as Tramp Camp. It's where the Twin Cities shelters its chronically homeless men when no one else will. Its official name is the Secure Waiting Space; $4 gets you a bunk bed. If you have no money, you sleep on the tile floor.

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Image A piece of the floor for the night

On one end of the room, a man whose left leg is amputated sleeps against a wall. It's first-come, first-serve. No sheets, no blankets, no pillows.

Hennepin County largely funds the shelter. Catholic Charities helps out with about 25 percent of the cost. John Petroskas is a shelter and housing specialist at Catholic Charities. The doors open at 5 p.m. He says guests get a two-inch mat on which to rest, but those don't go out until 9 p.m.

"If we put the mats out earlier than that there's no room to turn around. It's just basically, the mats cover the whole floor space. With 125 guys up here there's not a whole lot of room for people to turn around," he says.

While Petroskas talks, one of the Secure Waiting Space guests approaches.

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Image Sleeping mats available at 9 pm

"How you doing man?" "Hey what's up? You doing all right?" Petroskas asks. "We're going to a graveyard job." "Graveyard? All right." "I'm going to say it to your face so you don't think I said it to your sister, your brother, your cousin, your mother or your girlfriend."

Many of the men who sleep here have mental disturbances. Some pace, talk to themselves; others get agitated with each other in the small space.

Mixed in with these men are older men in their 50s, 60s and even 70s. A study by the Wilder Foundation found that between 2000 and 2003, the number of homeless people in Minnesota aged 55 and older rose by one-third -- to a total of 307 people.

As an outreach worker for six years, Petroskas noticed that many of the older people who slept at shelters didn't need to be there.

"It's incredible to me that we have senior citizens staying in our shelters when we have senior housing programs that are designed for people with disabilities. And if there is somebody to find these folks and connect them to the housing and the services, they can make the transition out of the shelter," says Petroskas.

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Image It's tough living on the streets

Petroskas says there is no single reason why older people become homeless. Their reasons are as varied as the individuals. He says there are the folks who have been homeless for decades, who just grow old on the streets. The others are people who become homeless at an older age.

"Maybe they lived with their mother up until she was in her 80s or 90s, and then suddenly this person doesn't know how to live independently, doesn't have housing anymore, has medical bills they can't pay and they ended up losing their housing, maybe they've had a loss of income through one source or another, family decide they don't want to take care of them anymore and they come down to the shelter," he says.

Petroskas identifies the oldest men at the shelter, talks to them, and finds out whether they might be eligible for General Assistance, Social Security or veterans benefits. If so, he helps them get into an apartment. He's helped 54 people get apartments.

One of them is 67-year-old Sam. Sam has had a long-time drinking problem, but is doing well. Sam, who's a poet and a veteran, slept on the secure waiting space floor for four years.

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Image John Petroskas, outreach worker

"It's like a slave ship -- tight. It's how close you sleep there in that place and it's kind of crazy," says Sam. "There's all kinds of racket going on all night pretty much. Then at 4 in the morning they start yelling because some of the guys who work on the labor pools, have to be at work early so they yell at 4, at 5."

All the men have to be out of shelter by 7 a.m. Sam says he'd walk the streets, maybe visit a drop-in center until he could return to the shelter at 5 in the afternoon. He says there are many older homeless people who are too proud to sleep at Tramp Camp and so they camp out, even in the winter.

Now Sam lives in an efficiency apartment on the 20th floor of a Minneapolis high rise. Unlike Tramp Camp, he now sleeps on his sofa bed and revels in the peace.

As Sam lies on his open bed with a nearby fan going, Petroskas kids him about his choice to watch the Maury Povich show.

"This is good quality educational TV. You're learning a lot, right?" jokes Petroskas.

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Image A man rests on the floor at Secure Waiting Space

Part of Petroskas' job is to not only help people like Sam find housing, but also to help them stay in their apartments. Sometimes that means taking them to the grocery store, checking on their bills, helping them get an air conditioner -- all things that a family member might do for an aging relative.

"You can't imagine how comfortable I feel being here," Sam says.

What would it mean for him to go back again?

"I don't know if I could do it. That's why I try to hang on to this as tenaciously. I don't ever want to do that experience, that again," says Sam. "It gets to be pretty tough."

With Petroskas' help, Sam has been living in his efficiency apartment for six months.

"I'm not like some miracle worker, I just am the matchmaker, you know. You're old; here's a place for old guys," Petroskas says. "Take them down there and if you like this place, I'll help you get in. And it's that simple. They just need somebody to build a trusting relationship with them so that they feel like you're giving them good advice."

Ninety percent of those people Petroskas has helped leave shelters are still living in their apartments.
Minnesota Public Radio

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