Shelter Interview Project

A report for the Minnesota Department of Human Services by A.E. Morales, LGSW, with assistance from: Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless & Amherst H. Wilder Foundation

Project Overview

The 2014 Shelter Interview Project was developed by the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Offices of Economic Opportunity, in partnership with the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless and the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. The purpose of the project was to explore issues related to homelessness in Minnesota in greater depth, from the perspective of individuals experiencing homelessness. Where previous studies and explorations of homelessness in Minnesota have focused on primarily demographic data or closed-question answers, this project was designed to collect narrative stories related to individual and family experiences of homelessness to better inform policy discussions at the organizational, local and state levels. The project was organized around three themes:

  1. What are the circumstances that led to shelter guests’ homelessness?
  2. What do shelter guests believe they need to find and maintain stable housing?
  3. What do shelter guests identify as gaps in public services?

This report is the summary of the findings and policy recommendations stemming from the interview project, and is submitted to the Department of Human Services on behalf of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.

Project Methodology

The survey was divided into two parts, a ten-item demographic survey, completed by the participants; and an eighteen-item semi-structured interview administered by project staff. Questions included in the shelter interview project were developed in collaboration with the Office for Economic Opportunity, the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, and the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. Both the demographic survey and structured interview tools can be found in the appendix of this report. The Shelter Interview Project was managed by A.E. Morales, LGSW; and two staff from the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, Kirsten Rokke and Katherine Wagoner.

Recruitment varied depending on the shelter, but was most often conducted by shelter staff, who were provided with basic recruiting materials, including flyers and scripts. Participation was limited to individuals over the age of 18 who had been staying in the shelter at least one week. Efforts were made to ensure that the participant pool reflected the experience of individuals experiencing homelessness across the state.

Shelters were divided broadly into “urban center” and “greater Minnesota” categories. For the purposes of this project, urban centers include Minneapolis/St. Paul, Rochester, St. Cloud and Duluth.

Report Excerpts

Homelessness in Focus: Diane, Western Minnesota

Interview data reflected the often complex nature of circumstances leading to an individual’s loss of stable housing, as in the case of Diane a single woman staying at a shelter in western Minnesota. Diane, a forty-something Caucasian woman with a high school diploma, reported that the previous three years had ushered in a particularly difficult period of her life, one which has had life-changing implications.

“So many things happened in the last couple years,” Diane says. “I lost my mom, I split up from my husband, I lost my dad and my house.”

Diane reported that when she lost her mother and father, she also lost her support network. She fell into a deep slide, falling into a cycle of substance abuse that ultimately led to her separation from her husband and the loss of her house, which she planned to purchase under contract for deed. Following the loss of her house, Diane doubled-up with her brother at a supportive housing complex, but was forced to move out under the facility’s rules governing non-resident stays.

“My depression was such that I couldn’t function. If I hadn’t lost my parents, I would’ve been okay,” Diane says.

Since relocating to the shelter, Diane says she is making headway, and attributes much of her success to the supportive community she found among other residents and staff. The road ahead, she knows, is wrought with challenges.

“My felonies are the biggest barrier,” she says, noting that she’s been turned down by several landlords and property managers due to her criminal history. Still, she remains optimistic. “As long as I have a bed and a roof over my head, that ‘s all that matters,” she says.

Homelessness in Focus: David, Minneapolis

David, a Native American man in his mid-40s, relocated to a shelter in Minneapolis after moving out of stable housing he was no longer able to afford following an increase in monthly rent.

A full-time student, David describes a life of living loan to loan, and highlighted the often critical importance of family support networks.

“I maxed out my student loans and ran out of Pell money,” he says. “I didn’t really have a place to go after I left my apartment. All of my relatives are way up north and I’m still in school.”

David says he’s on his way to financial stability, but on the eve of graduation, he’s still unsure about his future prospects. He speaks often in terms of stringing together student loans to finance his future.

“I’m graduating in two weeks with an associate’s degree,” he says. “I’m planning for a four -year degree at a local university, but I’m still waiting for that loan to come through.”

For David, homelessness has become another part of his pathway through schooling, and he views his current situation in shelter in the context of his future goals. After graduation, David hopes to use his expertise to bring positive change to the Native American community in Minneapolis.

“I’m just trying to maintain until September when my school money comes in.”

Download the full Shelter Interview Project report here.