Column #089. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Dec. 22, 2014; in print Dec. 23
"Big enough to make a difference, small enough to make it work."
This phrase, characterizing the St. Cloud area, was spoken Jan. 20 by the Rev. James Alberts II during the "Reimagining the Future" event at St. Cloud State University as part of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. His statement provided the opening for my first column of 2014.
Here at year's end, and two days before Christmas, his words come back to mind as a gift, both a tribute and a challenge as we finish the current two-year installment of Community Priorities and prepare for another update in February.
I have lived here 30 years, long enough to warrant my conviction that Greater> is not an idle boast.
One of the Community Priorities, "assist those facing poverty," has this as a subhead: "Develop options for housing, assistance to homeless people and/or those in crisis." The St. Cloud area identifies homelessness not simply as a problem but as an occasion for doing something.
Recently I and three others (including two who are homeless) from the St. Cloud Coalition for Homeless Men met with Jon Ruis, United Way president and CEO, and Christine Midthun, director of community relations. We were delighted to learn United Way has received funding to commission a study to examine improved access to services for those experiencing homelessness and those in peril of losing their housing. St. Cloud State University's School of Public Affairs Research Institute will conduct the study.
The coalition expects before long to introduce the "tiny homes" concept to this area, and we wanted to make sure we're coordinating with United Way, which itself convenes and connects a wide range of projects and programs.
My point now is not to detail the tiny homes movement, a fast-growing national phenomenon ("tiny homes" gets 515,000 Google hits), except to say it addresses homelessness by providing, well, homes. Madison, Wisconsin, is a national leader in the effort; several members of our coalition visited there and saw what is possible.
Times readers already know about the coalition's plans from the Aug. 1 Times report "Tiny house movement challenges big issues." Tina Lamberts, founder of the coalition, is cited as saying the past method of making people jump through hoops to prove themselves before moving up to the next level isn't working, and "the person needs the stability of a roof over their heads and knowing where they're going to be day after day."
The coalition's first tiny house isn't ready yet, but might be in 2015. In the meantime, we are committed to working with the homeless, not for them. Indeed, the coalition's public meetings — from 2-3 p.m. every other Tuesday at the St. Cloud Public Library — make no distinction between the homeless and those with homes.
The initial inspiration was Lamberts' inability to rest content with simply seeing the homeless men in Eastman Park as she walked her dog. She got to know them, heard their stories. As the July 30 Times report "St. Cloud coalition works to find solutions to homelessness" noted, for Tina " 'hellos' turned into short conversations," and she realized " 'they are individuals. They are human beings.' "
Priorities are only as good as the actions people take in response to them. "Assist those facing poverty" is a huge task, requiring action on many fronts.
- The recent St. Cloud Area Quarterly Business Report (Times, Dec. 14), "Steady growth continues," suggests the Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation is doing its part.
- The Local Education & Activities Foundation has established a Homeless Students Services Fund. There are several hundred homeless students in the St. Cloud school district.
- The Times has made regular reporting on homelessness a theme this year.
- And in a time of national turmoil, one of the most hopeful things I see is a St. Cloud police officer's regular participation in coalition meetings.
Big enough to make a difference indeed. And not simply small enough to make it work. Even better: It's working.