CAC and CEL team up again to raise awareness of homeless

Once again, the Northfield Community Action Center and the Civic Engagement Program in the Center for Experiential Learning at St. Olaf teamed up on National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.

IMG_1209One of their awareness strategies has been to camp out overnight in a public space in Northfield, as they did in 2006 and again in 2007.

On Thursday night this week, they did it again. It was a nippy 5 degrees F. on Friday morning.

In the photo on the far left: Jim Blaha, director of the Northfield Community Action Center; standing next to him, Nate Jacobi, Assistant Director for Civic Engagement at St. Olaf’s Center for Experiential Learning.


  1. Gilly Wigley said:

    I had fun the year that I camped out for Homelessness awareness week. Though we lucked out at had about 20 degree weather. Still, it was a great experience.

    November 22, 2008
  2. Andy Alt said:

    Thursday night was the first time I participated. With an overnight low of 11 degrees, we managed to have fun, but very little sleep. There are two groups now that are aware of how difficult it is to find refrigerator boxes: we who were “homeless” Thursday, and people who are homeless every day of the week. At 2:30 am, while everybody else was sleeping (or laying down in a vain attempt to sleep), I was tending the fire (aka, warming myself) and a lady named Mandy approached me and handed me two boxes of doughnuts, and thanked us for doing what we were doing. “I was homeless two years ago at this time,” she said.

    November 22, 2008
  3. Andy Alt said:

    The story says it was 5 degrees, the time and temperature reading on the display at First Bank of Northfield read 11 degrees. There was some debate that night about the accuracy of the bank’s display.

    November 22, 2008
  4. Griff Wigley said:

    Andy, that’s a neat story about the woman who said she was homeless two years ago.

    As for the bank thermometer, it can be questionable!

    At 6 am, the temp was 6 degrees, according to the Carleton Weather database

    November 22, 2008
  5. Andy Alt said:

    Thanks for the clarification, Griff.

    I should probably be clear about the fire. Jim Blaha brought a two-foot high (approximately) barrel and wood to burn. Except for the hour when I laid down to try to sleep, we kept the fire going all night. The problem was conserving what wood we had so it would last until morning. If we had more wood, the fire could have been much hotter when people arose periodically to warm themselves. I told Jim the only way he’d see me next year is if there was more wood. I’d happily and deliriously volunteer to buy a few bundles.

    If word was put out asking for donations of wood we’d have enough, more than we’d use I’m sure, but we’d need to have space in someone’s vehicle and a location to haul the leftovers in the morning.

    November 22, 2008
  6. Holly Cairns said:

    This reminds me of the last few words in the “Black Like Me” book. It’s fun if you know you can go home, afterwards.

    There’s a dude in town who is a year away from a St. Olaf degree, and he’s homeless. I love to talk with him, but my gifts of toiletries and etc. always put a wall between this guy and I. I don’t know how to help him, exactly.

    Homelessness is terrible, and on the rise. So is hunger.

    November 22, 2008
  7. Andy Alt said:

    Holly, I’m glad you pointed this out.

    It’s fun if you know you can go home, afterwards.

    I’ll add some irony to that statement now. In 2003, I was homeless for two months in San Luis Obispo, CA. I had the benefit of staying nights at a homeless shelter. The first night I checked in, so did a former college professor (history). He was also a Vietnam veteran who served in the Navy. Him and I spent a lot of time together during the day, but we also spent time, sometimes hours at bus stops with the other homeless folks. This Vietnam veteran previously had some money saved up. He spent $100,000 – $250,000 (can’t remember except it was over $100,000) on a pig valve to fix a heart problem. Whatever he paid for the surgery, it was only half of what he still owed. If I recall correctly, he became homeless because he lost everything to help pay for the surgery.

    And “hanging out” with these people was fun for me. One reason is that since my mid-twenties I began avoiding social situations. Before that most of my socializing was with friends from work. I also didn’t mind drinking at parties.

    Another reason for the “fun” was these were people I seemed to have more in common with than “homed” people. I’ve always been different, even before my father died (I was 8 years old) and I started showing symptoms of depression and generalized anxiety disorder. So from K-3, I didn’t have many friends at all, and was mostly a “loner.”

    The worst part about the experience was going back to the homeless shelter. Most of us would take the city bus back at night, a 10-20 minute ride. I remember I’d begin to get very depressed on the bus ride back. My Navy friend suggested it was because of how they “lock us in” at night. The shelter was closed from 7am to 7pm. Everybody who was going to spend the night had to be there by 6 or 6:30, and anyone leaving after 7pm wouldn’t be let back in, and they’d not be let in at all the following night. This rule was in place because sometimes they’d have to turn people away. So if anyone left during the night, there was a bed that a person turned away could have used.

    I know I should have been satisfied to have a place to sleep, but my desire not to be trapped or cornered override my appreciation for having a place to stay.

    The rules at the shelter were not unreasonable, but unfortunately I ran into a problem when the rules were broken by staff. Most of us rolled our own cigarettes and — apparently being different again — I decided to buy a cherrywood pipe. I felt it would be a little more convenient than always rolling my cigarettes. I’d smoke it on the outside porch, where everyone else smoked (there was also a little tv there we used to crowd around). There were some jokes made by others about me smoking pot, but I made it clear I was smoking only cigarette tobacco. A week or two later, I was woken by two staff members who called me into the office. They wanted to smell my pipe. They both sniffed it, and were satisfied I was only using it to smoke cigarette tobacco, and sent me back to bed, saying everything was fine.

    I left the next morning, with everybody else, like usual, and when I returned later that night to check in, I received a write-up for having “drug paraphernalia.” It was a warning, and if I committed another “offense” I wouldn’t be let back in for a night (or 30 days, can’t remember). It was written up by the person who managed the shelter, who was there at the time. I went over to her, and asked why it was drug paraphernalia, but rolling papers were not. She said, “What, you’re gonna argue with me and make things worse for yourself?”

    I started making a scene, knowing I would get banned, and that’s what happened.

    So not much fun in having my dignity and rights taken away, and treated like an inferior species, but the social aspect was enjoyable, memorable, and for a while, I really missed it and thought about it a lot.

    November 22, 2008
  8. Andy Alt said:

    In my last comment there’s a smiley with sunglasses. That should be

    (I was eight)

    November 22, 2008
  9. Andy Alt said:

    I almost forgot, prior to the general election, Rep David Bly and Tim Rud held a moderated discussion about homelessness at the NCAC. While there, I learned of this group from the handouts: Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless

    November 22, 2008
  10. Griff Wigley said:

    Thanks, Andy… I fixed the ‘8’.

    Holly, yes, good point, “It’s fun if you know you can go home, afterwards.” I got through some tough summer jobs as a kid with a “I can do this till September” attitude.

    But there is an element of consciousness-raising that’s still valuable. I remember “fasting for Biafra” for 3 days back in college. I’ve never forgotten that experience, how hunger focused my attention to the exclusion of all else… even girls!

    As for how to help a homeless individual, it’s tricky.  I never give cash as it’s tough to predict whether it’ll be spent on alcohol. 

    FYI, the Northfield CAC has a section of their website devoted to housing, including services for the homeless.

    November 23, 2008
  11. Holly Cairns said:

    Hey Andy,

    It sounds like you’ve seen some tough times. Too bad about that prof, too.

    Those are great resources, the MN coalition and the CAC. Thanks!

    November 24, 2008
  12. Bright Spencer said:

    My mom used to bring the homeless person into the nearby McDonalds’ and buy a burger and a cup of coffee for them.

    November 29, 2008

Leave a Reply