Thursday, March 10, 2016

Class trip to Higher Ground

We’ve all been there. Your flight is delayed. Your phone is about to die. You scan the gate for available outlets with no luck. People have staked their spots, even hunkered down on the floor, gripping iPhones and glaring at anyone who dares challenge them. Scarcity of resources brings out the worst in people. Add fatigue, hunger, anxiety, and frustration into the mix and it’s not surprising that verbal and physical spats ensue between complete strangers over who gets to charge their phone.

Homeless shelters often face these same issues. Limited outlets causes strife between clients. On a class trip to Higher Ground shelter in Minneapolis this past fall, we stood in a room filled with empty bunk beds and learned about adaptations the shelter has made to reduce such conflicts. Every bed has its own outlet. For people who carry their life’s belonging on their back, this sense of privacy and dignity goes a long way.

Higher Ground embraces the sentiment of “meeting people where they’re at,” which reflects in its day-to-day operations. For example, it provides lockers for alcohol. Clients are not allowed to bring alcohol into the shelter, but upon arrival, they can safely stow away alcohol to retrieve in the morning. Before the lockers were introduced, clients sometimes chugged half a bottle of vodka while waiting in line because they knew the alcohol would be confiscated. A Higher Ground employee explained that it’s not just about the alcohol. It’s about knowing your belongings are secure; they will not be taken away from you. Since introducing the lockers, Higher Ground has had fewer alcohol-related incidents.

Located near downtown Minneapolis, the shelter is open 365 days a year. The name Higher Ground speaks to its mission—to help guests attain permanent housing. The ground floor offers 171 spaces with light dinner, breakfast, and shower facilities.

On the second floor, guests pay $7 a night for beds, lockers, linens, showers, and access to employment resources. Higher Ground holds this money for guests to put toward rent for permanent housing. With 80 beds, the Pay-for-Stay facility is quieter and calmer than the first floor. Access to storage on the second floor is crucial. Before moving upstairs, clients must carry everything with them all the time. Showing up to a job interview with a suitcase is “the kiss of death,” a Higher Ground employee explained. Moving upwards means increasing privacy and independence. The higher floors contain individual rooms for clients; it feels similar to a college residence hall.

The trip to Higher Ground was an eye-opening and humbling experience. In Community Psychology and Public Health, we could read articles from psychology journals, we could sit in a classroom and discuss homelessness, but nothing could replace the feeling of standing in that room lined with empty bunk beds. Moving up the levels gave abstract words like “privacy,” “security,” and “independence” a tangible meaning.

My time at Macalester has included many field trips. I baked bread at Great Harvest; I toured the Minnesota Public Radio headquarters in St. Paul; I contemplated modern art at the Walker. The readings, our class discussions, even my final papers fade, but I remember the field trips. And since touring Higher Ground, I’ve never thought of outlets in the same way.

Alexandra McLaughlin ’16
Rosemount, MN