2011 Changemaker: Monica Nilsson

Director of homeless outreach program has a new perspective as she works with homeless cancer patients

Photo by Sarah Whiting

A diagnosis of uterine and ovarian cancer in June 2011, gave Monica Nilsson a whole new perspective on her work. “What does the doctor say as I’m leaving the hospital? First: Go home. Second: Get plenty of rest. Next: Eat well, eat nutritiously. And next: Take your medicine at the right time,” Nilsson recalled.

It was clear to her that these directives are not easily carried out by her clients in the homeless community. Nilsson is the director of Street Outreach and Community Engagement for St. Stephen’s Human Services in Minneapolis.

“[Homeless people] don’t have a home, they certainly can’t get plenty of rest, their medicine may get stolen or misplaced, they eat what they are given,” she said.

Nilsson has been working with services for the homeless population since 1993. The first night, she volunteered at a shelter for men and women. “I realized very quickly it was the work I wanted to do in my life,” she said.

“I believe that community education and engagement is key to our ending people’s homelessness,” Nilsson said. “I don’t think that people want other people to suffer. I think they don’t know how bad they are suffering.”

In Minnesota, women make up 28 percent, and children 40 percent, of the homeless population. Men are a little under one-third, according to Nilsson. Every 90 days or so, St. Stephen’s Human Services does a count of people without shelter. Depending on the season, there are typically about 100 teenagers and between 200 and 400 adults sleeping outside in Minneapolis in a substandard setting-under bridges, in parks or cars. “We do our best job of sheltering small children,” Nilsson said.

Nilsson has turned her personal experience with cancer into an opportunity to educate and hopefully build some bridges. She is a member of a group working with health plans and hospitals to bring a national “Hospital to Home” model to Minnesota.

The homeless community is more likely to use the emergency room for health-care needs. Some cities in the U.S. have developed programs for homeless people to move from a hospital stay to a subsidized housing program to continue their recuperation with care management, rather than going back to a homeless shelter or the streets. This kind of program has been shown to improve patient health, in addition to lowering public health-care costs.

“How many people would say ‘homeless cancer patient?'” Nilsson asked. “Most people think they have nothing in common with a homeless person, that they will never be homeless. Any way that we can build a bridge, to see that we have more in common than we have difference.”

The “Home Run” program is another health-conscious effort that Nilsson is developing. A newish runner herself, Nilsson realized that her running routine has helped her stay healthy through chemotherapy. “Team Monica”-a group of her running friends-has ignited her idea to develop a walking and running program for homeless women with cancer. Nilsson has plans to pair 20 women-ones with means and ones without.

Nilsson works by building bridges and is ending people’s homelessness everyday. “The idea of ending homelessness sounds daunting or impossible. But I have never met someone in my 18 years for whom we could not end their homelessness. I have never met someone who does not want their own home, so that gives me hope.”

Monica Nilsson encourages people to be curious and take the time to become educated on the issues of homelessness. To contribute time, energy or dollars, call 612-481-9501.
FFI: www.ststephensmpls.org