[Hpn] Schools Are Often Home To The Homeless

William C. Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Sun, 30 Jan 2005 22:13:18 -0500


www.startribune.com/

January 30, 2005

Schools are often home to homeless

Dan Wascoe,  Star Tribune

Greg Staffa felt a twinge when he learned that Francisco Javier Serrano had
ducked in and out of Apple Valley High School to survive the cold.
Staffa, a 30-year-old Burnsville resident, said that during nine months in
2001 he followed a similar routine but used a different school -- Normandale
Community College -- to shower, shave, eat, read and stay warm, nearly every
day.
"With a community college you could be a 40-year-old single mom or an
18-year-old man," he said. And Normandale, he said, was suitable for him
because it was not far from his job at the airport and "there are study
corners all over that place."
Unlike Serrano, he did not stay overnight in the school. He slept in his
car.
He parked near 24-hour food stores so that his Mazda would be less
conspicuous, he said. He learned to suspend a blanket over his fold-down
back seat so passersby wouldn't realize he was sleeping there. He bought
humidity-absorbing crystals to prevent his windows from fogging in cold
weather -- a tipoff that someone was inside.

Since those hand-to-mouth days, which he did his best to conceal, Staffa has
resumed working for Northwest Airlines and moved into a series of
apartments. In November, he even ran for mayor of Burnsville, winning 29
percent of the vote against the incumbent, Elizabeth Kautz, who won.
Staffa now lives with a hamster and a lobster in a one-bedroom apartment.
After nine months away from work because of injury, he recently resumed
light duty on a Northwest ground crew.
"Not everyone who is homeless is a deadbeat, alcoholic drug user," he said.
He added that he and Serrano "can't be the only two that used a school
setting to help us through a hard time. The only difference is he got
caught."
David Mathieu, Normandale's vice president of academic and student affairs,
said he was unaware of Staffa's visits four years ago but it's not the first
time he's heard of nonstudents using the campus' amenities. He has heard
similar stories at six other campuses where he has worked. "It's almost
routine," he said.
Chief Greg Hestness of University of Minnesota Police said it is common --
"if not daily, then frequently" -- to find people trespassing in some of the
250 buildings on the Twin Cities campus, despite beefed-up surveillance and
access controls. Some are trying to get warm, some are mentally ill, he
said.
Staffa became homeless by choice in April 2001, when he was 26, after a
dispute with his parents over financial and counseling matters. He
acknowledged taking prescribed medication for depression and receiving
sporadic counseling help. He has chosen not to reconcile with his family and
has seldom seen his parents and siblings since leaving home.
At the time he left he had a job at Northwest but was laid off shortly after
the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. He relied on unemployment insurance and
said he secured a real-estate license but could not afford the startup costs
to take advantage of that business.
He chose not to seek help at shelters to maintain "the illusion" that he was
still living normally: "I didn't want to think of myself like this."
With no way to keep perishable items, he said he relied on fast-food meals
and gained 50 to 60 pounds.
Still, he said, he maintained certain standards, such as always finding
public toilets. "You don't want to feel uncivilized."
In that respect, he said, he identified with Serrano, who passed as a
student at Apple Valley High. "Both of us strived to find ways to portray
ourselves as normal."
He said he sometimes slipped discount coupons from magazines in bookshops
and discount stores. Occasionally he checked into a cheap hotel with cable
television where he could watch movies.
"You find ways to do stuff ... to treat yourself," he said.
By December 2001 he said he was able to rent a studio apartment in Roseville
and about a year later moved into a larger one-bedroom apartment. At the
time he was injured last March, his monthly income was about $850 compared
with his monthly rent of $699, including underground parking. He still is
coping with a credit-card balance of about $7,000, nearly all of it from his
homeless days, he said: "I have been treading water since 2001, and that's a
lot of treading."
He ran for mayor, he said, because he has an interest in government and
politics and because he believes Burnsville needs more family-oriented
programs and activities and a community center. He watched Burnsville City
Council meetings on TV to learn about the issues and said he spent about
$200 on his campaign, printing fliers on a home computer.
Mayor Kautz confirmed that Staffa disclosed his homeless background during
the campaign.
In joint appearances, Staffa "was articulate and he was funny," she said.
"But he didn't understand local government. ... We're about public safety
and public works." His community center idea has been rejected by voters,
she said.
Staffa said he might consider running again to support programs "so more
families don't become what mine became."
For now, he said, "I'm not great, but I'm doing all right. ... I can say I
did this on my own."
But he acknowledges not sleeping well.
"I slept better when I was homeless," he said. "To this day that confuses
me."
Dan Wascoe is at dwascoe@startribune.com

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