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Volunteering gives Walseth new perspective of homeless

When she thought about homelessness, she had always pictured unkempt men standing on the sides of streets holding signs that read, “anything helps” or, “will work for money.” She had negative preconceived notions about their lives and their stories.

But when her pastor at Edgewood United Methodist Church asked if anyone was interested in volunteering to supervise a group of homeless men for a 12-hour overnight shift, Teri Walseth, dean of the college of education and human services, didn’t to think twice about volunteering.

ROBERT J. SWANSEN -swansento@mnstate.edu

“I’ve never stayed up a whole night in my life,” Walseth said laughing.

But, she committed to the 12-hour shift at the larger First United Methodist Church, along with her 22-year-old son.

It was a part of a combined effort by Churches United to help with homeless shelter overflow. Each of the larger churches had committed one week to housing the homeless.

The volunteers went through a three-hour training session to prepare themselves for any situation that might arise during the shift.

“We just talked about the statistics and the circumstances of how people end up homeless and all those kinds of things that other people wouldn’t be familiar with,” Walseth said.

The volunteers arrived at the church at 8 p.m. Friday to get a run down of what to expect.

Although they had been told there was plenty of food at the church, Walseth and other volunteers took it upon themselves to bring fresh produce.

“They were cooking up a storm in the kitchen and serving food everywhere,” Walseth said. “So, we had all that laid out and the men came in and sat at these big tables and helped themselves to food.”

At about 9 p.m., 10 men, ranging in age from early twenties to late fifties, arrived by bus from the homeless shelter.

“I wouldn’t have known that these individuals were any different than anyone else,” Walseth said. “They were just not the stereotypical homeless person at all.”

Initially, Walseth stood back and observed as the men ate their food, but it didn’t take long for her to reach out and talk to them.

“We just started asking them, ‘Where are you from? What’s your story?’” Walseth said as her face lit up. “And it was awesome.”

As Walseth and the volunteers started playing cards and other games with the men, the men began to talk about their lives and share their stories. Walseth wasn’t expecting to hear the stories she did.

One of the men had moved to North Dakota from California because he had been promised a job in Williston, N.D., she said. But when he got here, there was no job for him.

Another young man in his early twenties was teary-eyed as he talked about his family and his four children.

Walseth was surprised to hear how different their lives were than she had imagined.

They liked to talk about their travels, she said. And, a lot of them were really into sports and watch games regularly.

“Well, of course they watch the game,” Walseth said to herself. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

In her mind, homeless people were just transient men on the highway. She didn’t imagine they’d have cars or cell phones, but most of them did.

“If you think about it,” Walseth said, “if you need a lifeline or if you need to make a long distance phone call, how else do you do it?”

Walseth had never thought about those kinds of things, she said.

The thing that annoyed Walseth most was that the men could only take two showers a week or five if they went to a different shelter at the right time. The thought that they have to somewhat plan their lives around their showers disturbed her.

Volunteering with these men gave Walseth a better understanding of what it means to be homeless and stay in a homeless shelter.

“I would almost like to volunteer at one of the shelters around town because now I have a better perspective of it,” Walseth said.

The next day, as she drove around town, she wondered if they were out.

“I was in Minneapolis the next week for a meeting, and there was a woman that appeared to be homeless because she was hauling all of her stuff in her cart,” Walseth said. “And I remember just thinking, I almost want to stop and ask her what her story is.”

BY JASMINE MAKI
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