Mary Martin, Dignity Center Director. Photography by Sarah Whiting
It’s not ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We’re not doing things for them, but doing it with them.
– Mary Martin
Ten years ago, while walking, a car hit Julie. Her legs are filled with metal rods. Her medical care was excellent, she says, but in time, after the injuries were taken care of, came the chronic pain and shifting impact of age. She was unable to work, to manage the paperwork required by multiple sources (she is still waiting for Social Security benefits), and she became homeless.
She needed surgery and lived in a shelter. How would she heal in that environment? It was a draining process for her to navigate transportation, inadequate housing, confusing medical issues and the lack of income.
Someone told her about Dignity Center. As a “participant,” Julie started to meet with an “advocate” twice a week. At first she was resistant to trust, until she realized he was “genuine.” He had an ability “to think of things [she] hadn’t thought of.” For example, she carried a large assortment of belongings everywhere, including medications, in plastic bags. “He noticed, and gave me a book bag.” And he was consistent – several years later he is still Julie’s point of contact there.
The Center isn’t about simply getting access to resources, Julie says. “The message is that ‘I care about you and want to see you succeed.'”
At Dignity, Julie re-learned that she mattered. “I lost that for a while,” she said. “Not knowing where to turn is humiliating.” When you have so many challenges in your life, it’s hard on relationships. And in the social system, “I became simply another number – one of those people who needs help – instead of a person experiencing transition in my life.”
At the Center, she connects with others who find themselves homeless. It’s important, Julie says, to be with people who understand that “we are more than what society sees. Until you go through it, it’s difficult to communicate to others.”
The aura of Dignity Center
The tall spires of the United Methodist Church soar over Hennepin Avenue, just south of Loring Park. In the adjacent former parsonage house is the Dignity Center. When you step onto its Oriental rug, you are greeted with multiple expressions of “hello” and “welcome” in the hubbub of a weekday morning. A chandelier lights the winding staircase. A hearty breakfast is served, thanks to donations from Capital Grille, a downtown Minneapolis restaurant. They use cloth napkins. People know your name. Newcomers are welcomed to cushy seats to get better acquainted.
The Center does not provide “services” to people experiencing homelessness. “That takes away dignity,” says director Mary Martin. “Our participants are the ones doing the work. We’re simply here to support them. Helping to develop a sense of belonging.”
Dignity Center is about building relationships. “It can be a barrier if there is no one to talk with who wants to see you succeed,” says Martin. “Having that relationship is critical.”
The volunteer advocates assist the participants in two ways. They identify areas of stability, and identify the areas of growth and change. The participant works with the advocate’s assistance to identify obstacles to those goals, like criminal records, medical issues, mental illness, legal issues or substance abuse. The participant then creates goals related to employment, housing, transportation and finance.
Participants work one-on-one with their dedicated advocate to identify the steps needed to achieve their goals. Someone with medical concerns will be asked: Are you getting to your doctor’s appointments? Going to the gym? Taking your meds?
Advocates come from all walks of life – nursing, law, police enforcement, social work. Some are newly retired. Some are students. Some come from Hennepin Ave. United Methodist Church and other faith communities. They have quarterly trainings, participate in group-think for solutions, and share resources like job leads, new programs and housing.
Muria Kruger has been an advocate at the Center for six years. She offers advice around child support, custody, criminal records and housing. She began her work as an advocate through the Volunteer Lawyers Network.
Jane Kelly – and much of her family – have volunteered at the Center for years. It started when her father, now 90, came to the Center simply to talk with visitors on Fridays. He still does. “I never go home feeling sad,” Kelly says. “This is a hopeful place. The resilience of the participants here is huge. Some people keep getting knocked down, but keep going forward. Laughing is big here. Some come back to share their success, like you would to a parent or teacher.”
At a Center retreat hosted in the country, Julie appreciated going somewhere quiet, where her basic needs were met without as much energy and effort on her part. “To enjoy nature, and see the beauty in life again,” she says. “There is beauty in the world that is here for all of us.”
A participant’s story
I came to Minnesota with nothing and found myself in what I felt was a very demoralizing situation. The second day I was here, a friend brought me to a place called the Dignity Center. From the moment I walked in the doors, my life changed. The Dignity Center has brought so much life to me and enhanced my character as a human being.
There were days when I did not know where my next meal was coming from. Providing meals and a family style dining, it always felt like Thanksgiving. I had something to be thankful for.
Jane, my advocate, was more than just an advocate. She encouraged me in ways that I could never repay. The staff at the Dignity Center assisted me with a major life transition. They ensured I had transportation, food, important health information and resources that have helped me re-establish my life.
More than the physical aspects of assistance, the Dignity Center and its staff have given me the DIGNITY to be independent and successful.
– Kim, Dignity Center participant
In 2015 at Dignity Center:
• 1000 people visited 5083 times
• 616 were new to the Center
• 443 engaged in the program
• 272 have made and/or maintained progress towards their stability goals
• 174 are still actively engaged with the program
• 68 volunteers averaged 100 hours a month (with 75 percent of the volunteers reporting their hours)When Julie, 50, thinks about where she wants to be in a few years, her wish list includes:
• To walk into a store and buy clothes and undergarments that fit.
• To take a friend out to dinner.
• To have a bathtub.
• To do yoga and afford a gym membership.
• To feel somewhat normal again.