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“I was a resident living at the intersection of Elk and Maple,” said John, who now makes his home on the third floor of Catholic Charities’ Higher Ground Minneapolis.
“Oh, I said I lived at Spruce Street and Fountain Place,” quips Tim, who resides on the sixth floor.
The street names weren’t from a neighborhood, but a way to explain they were living in Loring Park—without actually having to say they made their home at the base of a large tree in the Minneapolis park.
Large branches kept out some elements, but not all. There were pine needles, squirrels, insects, cold winds and, sometimes, strangers approaching.
“We would wake up and there would be someone snuggling us. It was creepy,” Tim, 56, said.
Another time John, 57, was punched in the face and lost several teeth. They suffered trench foot and other health ailments. Living in the elements not only affected their physical health, but their mental health.
“The tree was the lowest time in my life, and I didn’t even know it…because you’re just so numb to everything,” John said. “Your mind isn’t stimulated. You don’t have anything to think about. Something as small as teeth. When do you brush your teeth when you’re sleeping under a tree with squirrels and pine needles?”
John and Tim carried few belongings since they had to haul everything with them. Something most do every day—change socks and underwear—was a hurdle with no place to do laundry. Even when given the items, they had no way to wash or store the necessities.
John remembers one day while he was living in the park, someone came up to him and gave him 100 pair of socks. While he was delighted, he had no dresser to put them in. John walked around giving them out one at a time to people who could use them.
“When you are given so much, that was a great opportunity to give back,” he said.
Homelessness was unexpected
Homelessness wasn’t something either expected would happen to them. Both have college degrees. Tim earned a degree in business administration and marketing. He used that to build a successful career in the tech industry. When he wasn’t working, Tim spent time with his family at their house on Lake Minnetonka. When he wasn’t boating, he was golfing.
“That was in another life,” Tim said.
John first earned a degree in computer science. He earned his lake house working in large banks and even lived in Australia for a period of time. John later worked as a flight attendant, but was furloughed after the September 11 attacks. He switched gears and earned a culinary arts degree.
When asked why they’re homeless, Tim uses his hand to gesture taking a drink. They both take ownership and say they lost their success and stability due to heavy alcohol use.
“My homelessness is all my fault. My alcohol abuse is all my fault,” John said.
Tim was cited for driving under the influence multiple times and served time in prison for that. His record makes it even more difficult to find a job or a place to live. After leaving his tech job, Tim took up landscaping and eventually went to work in food service.
John doesn’t have any DWIs, but came close.
“I was driving and realized I shouldn’t be. I pulled over and walked away from the car and never went back for it,” he said.
Home at Higher Ground provides stability, opportunities
With the stability of Higher Ground, and support of staff, Tim and John are working to get away from the bottle. They enjoy sleeping in soft beds, doors that lock, being able to hang their clothing. They are getting the medical and dental care they need and are working toward self-sufficiency. They say Higher Ground has helped them to see possibility again and given them the wherewithal to go after opportunities.
“I never thought we would sleep under a tree,” John said, while dressed in a suit, preparing for a job interview. “Coming to Higher Ground, I think it’s life changing and a total gift to change your past.”
While John and Tim talk openly about their experiences on the streets, they light up when talking about a community that is lifting them up.
That beautiful suit was a gift from someone who manages a luxury menswear store in Minneapolis and had seen them on the street in shabby clothes. Their faces light up when they remember the day someone walked up to them with a box of BBQ ribs, rice and beans. They speak in awe of the changes that are happening in their lives thanks to the help of Catholic Charities’ staff.
“There’s so much gratitude I have in this building,” John said, adding he keeps a journal to help keep him focused on reasons to be thankful.
It all started when they met Minneapolis Police Sgt. Grant Snyder. Snyder befriended them, gained their trust and eventually asked them to participate in a panel about homelessness with service providers and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. Together, they went to the homeless encampment and sat down for a long chat in a local coffee shop. From there, they were invited to Simpson House and got on the waiting list to move home to Higher Ground Minneapolis.
“To take the next step up to here, we wouldn’t have had that opportunity if we hadn’t taken that first opportunity. This place, it’s a stepping stone. It’s getting me a chance to get back to being me,” Tim said.
While he has been through a lot— and admits his own part in it all—Tim is proud of surviving.
“I take some pride in helping him survive, but there was some time I could have just given up. I am a survivor and I think my dad instilled that in me,” Tim said.
John and Tim are proud of how far they have come, and are working to enjoy even better tomorrows.
As he left Higher Ground Minneapolis that early summer morning dressed in that suit and the shiny black shoes and the tie that took him a few times to remember to tie, John had purpose and commitment to a new tomorrow.
“If you don’t ask, you don’t get. I really need this job. I am going to ask for the job. I am really, truly desperate,” John said. “It’s very hard to be homeless. It’s even harder to change that.”