William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Sun, 11 Sep 2005 16:27:50 -0400

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      Sun, Sep. 11, 2005


      As support blossoms for Katrina evacuees, homegrown problems wait


      Associated Press

      ST. PAUL - Akhmed Muhammed Rahim, who's been homeless for most of the 
past two years, says he envies Hurricane Katrina survivors for all the 
offers of help they've been getting.

      Rahim, 26, could use work and a place to live, too.

      "Their shoes is probably a lot better than these," he said Thursday 
outside the emergency shelter where he sleeps, kicking out a white athletic 
shoe. At his feet was a dark green duffel bag containing all his 
possessions, which he has to tote around during the day.

      Even as people across the country pour out support for the victims of 
Hurricane Katrina, advocates for the poor here say they hope the catastrophe 
won't obscure homegrown needs. For instance, as many as 3 million Americans 
already were homeless at some point during the last year, before Katrina 

      With states near and far preparing to take in thousands of Katrina 
survivors, some said the natural disaster - which starkly illustrated the 
divisions between the poor and those with resources - could sharpen the 
focus on the problems of poverty.

      "This disaster has pointed out to people the incredible vulnerability 
of a lot of people who are very, very poor - those people were largely 
housed, but barely - and have no capacity to withstand any problem in their 
lives," said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End 
Homelessness. "Those are the populations from whom homeless people come."

      At the Dorothy Day homeless shelter where Rahim stays, morning rain 
drove people under the overhang of the entrance or onto sheltered benches in 
a fenced park. About 175 people sleep on floor mats here each night; the 
number rises above 200 during the coldest parts of the winter.

      "A lot of people down here are getting a bad break," says Perman 
Baker, a homeless advocate who stopped by the shelter.

      "I understand and respect and have strong compassion about the people 
who lost their homes there," he said. "You have to feel the compassion and 
everything for them. But crap, what about the people down here? This is not 
adding up."

      About 10,000 people are homeless on any given night in Minnesota, and 
another 11,000 to 12,000 live in housing situations that could unravel at 
any moment, says Michael Dahl, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition 
for the Homeless. Nationally, some 750,000 lack shelter each night, and 
that's not counting Katrina survivors.

      Organizations that serve the poor have been overwhelmed by offers of 
help for Katrina survivors. Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis 
provides an array of services, including 14 emergency shelters and 
transitional and permanent housing facilities in the Twin Cities, with space 
for 1,057 people.

      "Our phones are ringing off the hook," said the Rev. John Estrem, 
chief executive officer. "It says what is possible - what we can do as a 
people if we are properly motivated."

      He says he's optimistic that many who help in the wake of Katrina will 
be changed by the experience, leading them to ongoing volunteer work.

      "Maybe this thing is so big that it makes a difference long-term in 
how we look at poverty in America," Estrem said. "Once you meet the poor, 
you can no longer ignore them. Tons of people are going to meet the poor."

      Dahl also hopes the overwhelming urge to help after Katrina will spill 

      "The last thing we want to have happen is this to turn into a 
competition for resources," he said. "I don't want to take away from the 
real need of what we're seeing. Let's come to people's aid and help them, 
but let's build on that."

      Baker, the homeless advocate, says politicians haven't paid enough 
attention to the reasons people become homeless, or the dilemmas they face 
when they lack permanent shelter. He knows - he was homeless himself about a 
decade ago.

      Now he hopes to change things. His nonprofit organization, Beat the 
Streets, links homeless people with jobs. And he's part of an advocacy 
committee here that persuaded city leaders to spend $10,000 building lockers 
where homeless people can store their belongings during the day.

      Both Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Mayor Randy Kelly have vowed to end 

      But state government has been cutting programs that aid the poor, 
including subsidized health care and funding for nonprofits that provide 
services ranging from after-school programs to job training.

      Katrina may help justify beefing up government spending on social 
services and other needs, says Marcia Avner, public policy director for the 
Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.

      "Has the pendulum swung too far in saying the less government, the 
better?" Avner said. "The reality is there is a critical role for government 
in people's lives."


      Martiga Lohn may be reached at mlohn@ap.org.

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