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Philip’s South Saint Paul apartment truly looks like a home. On a quiet street, the only sounds on a late summer afternoon are of neighborhood children at play. A short walk up a few stairs leads to his doorway. Once inside, a rosary lays on his neatly-made bed.
Hand washed socks are draped over a hanger in the hall closet. A large wooden sign which reads “RESPONSIBILITY” hangs over the kitchen sink and dishes yet-to-be-washed. A television tells the day’s news in the living room, a table overflows with diabetes testing supplies, there is a stack of books, mostly classics. The works of William Shakespeare are among his favorites. The home may be small and modest, but it provides everything the 64-year-old needs.
The concept of home seemed too out-of-reach for Philip not long ago. Living in a shelter had become the norm, his “safe zone” as it were. He resisted initial attempts to help move him out of the shelter and into a home.
“I had never seen someone who was enjoying this type of program. I didn’t see how feasible it was. I was thinking it was a hoax,” Philip explained. “When you are homeless, you take it seriously. Homelessness is the bottom rung. That’s where you can be. But if you leave there and there is no place for you to go to, you are not sure of all the things you are promised, you can go into depression, and I didn’t want to go into any kind of crisis or anything like that. I needed to be convinced. I wouldn’t just take it for face value.”
Philip, who experienced homelessness for about four years, received assistance in finding a home via Ramsey County’s RUSH program. The goal of RUSH, an acronym for Redirecting Users of Shelter to Housing, is to identify the top users of shelters into permanent housing, freeing up shelter space for individuals in need and identifying necessary policy and system changes to create a better shelter system for all. The program was made possible thanks to a grant by Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundations.
Tonya Lennox is the Catholic Charities’ case manager working to find homes for individuals identified as top shelter users. “I got 100 names when I started this work in January 2017,” she said. Of those, 68 individuals were successfully housed for a minimum of six months.
For some experiencing homelessness, there is risk and fear of the unknown. Lennox has to earn trust of those she works with.
“Philip really made me work for it,” Lennox said. “We need to remember, a lot of these people are in survival mode. They just want to eat, sleep and survive another day. When you first approach someone, you see how hopeless they are. They respect when you stick around and they want you to build rapport.”
After Philip had lost everything, the community lifted him up at Catholic Charities.
“They were very kind to me,” he remembers.
That kindness bred comfort.
Philip has a history of always working for anything he receives. The father of four worked as an optometrist in his home country of Nigeria, but was unable to practice in the United States. He had a cleaning business in Moorhead, Minnesota for more than a decade, but became homeless after going bankrupt nearly five years ago.
Now, Philip suffers from myriad health challenges. He is easily fatigued, has lost toes due to diabetes and suffered infections because wounds were unable to heal properly while sleeping in the shelter.
The stability of home has changed Philip’s life—and his health—dramatically.
“My life has changed because of how I can prepare my own meals. I am on a low sodium, low potassium diet. When you have a stable environment, a home, you can manage your life and your health,” he said.
The RUSH program has seen much success since beginning in 2017, but Tonya is not done yet. She’s merely getting started. She stops midsentence to look outside of Higher Ground Saint Paul when she spots another woman on her list. Her work is never done.
“I always tell clients, I am just grateful you allowed me to be a part of your story,” she said.
She is incredibly thankful to Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundations for funding this initiative. “Not only have they done so much for the people I serve, but this is the best job I’ve ever had. As you can see by our numbers, it’s working and it’s working long term.”
It certainly has worked for Philip. His home not only brings his peace of mind, but improved health.
“I’m thankful for everything…I appreciate the need for a stable home. When you have a stable home you can plan for your life and you can manage your own health. This is a very, very good program and we are going to be highly indebted to them… there’s no way you would get out of that environment without this program. It is like we were stuck there. I’m proud and I’m thankful to them.”