Homeless woman leaves the streets for Higher Ground

| March 26, 2014 | 1 Comment


Julie Gergen is enjoying her new apartment at Catholic Charities’ Higher Ground in Minneapolis. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Julie Gergen is enjoying her new apartment at Catholic Charities’ Higher Ground in Minneapolis. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Julie Gergen leaned in toward the window of her seventh-floor apartment on the northwest edge of downtown Minneapolis to take in the view.

At the base of the building, a fresh carpet of snow on the railroad tracks was yet another reminder that winter has stayed too long.

But, that depressing reality did not erase the smile on her face. In fact, her countenance glowed like the Basilica of St. Mary — at the far end of her view — does at night.

If she sees snow for several more weeks, even that won’t dim her joy.

“Now, I can look out and see it [snow] and know that I don’t have to be in it,” she said.

Just more than a year ago, she would tromp through the snow-covered streets for several hours each day — and hope she didn’t end up sleeping there.

Gergen, 47, was homeless. After several tragic deaths followed by alcohol abuse toppled her idyllic family life and cost her a six-figure salary, she hit the streets and began a six-year battle to survive.

That battle officially ended when she moved into Catholic Charities’ Higher Ground last April. A friend encouraged her to apply to get into the facility, which provides housing and other services to its residents.

“Within two weeks, my phone rang, and it was Sarah from Higher Ground,” Gergen said. “She said, ‘It just so happens we have an opening. You can move in tomorrow.’ And, I just couldn’t believe it. I hit the ground [and said], ‘Thank you, Jesus. Once again, you came through for me.’ I moved in the next day.”

Her small apartment includes an oven, stove and refrigerator, not to mention a view of the western edge of downtown.

“It’s a palace to me,” she said. “I pray every day — probably five times a day — just thanking God for giving me this. I would love to see more Higher Grounds all over the city to get people off the streets. It’s very rough, especially being a woman, to be out there.”

The best part of the apartment for her is actually its simplest feature — the key. It’s a small piece of metal she hasn’t owned since about 2006, not long after she separated from her husband and their four children.

Into the pressure cooker

The rough ending to this chapter in her life was not something she could have predicted during the early years of her marriage, which took place in 1994. Things were clipping along nicely, with both she and her husband working full time, he in commercial roofing and she in the banking and mortgage industry.

A native of south Minneapolis, she got a job in the file room of a TCF bank not long after graduating from Washburn High School in 1985. She worked her way up the ladder steadily from there, reaching the pinnacle when she was promoted to assistant vice president at Eagle Valley Bank in the southern suburbs.

“I didn’t have really a care in the world,” said Gergen, who noted that her salary rose to just under $200,000. “We owned a home. We had beautiful automobiles. I never really wanted for anything.”

Then, a string of deaths in her family changed everything. First, her brother died of a rare disease, then her father died in 2002 after a long illness. Finally, her mother committed suicide two years later.

The pressure cooker of grief was more than Gergen could handle.

“I sunk into a deep depression,” she said. “I was extremely close to my mother. . . . Me and my mother were best friends. We did everything together.

“I chose to self-medicate myself with alcohol,” she said. “That’s the worst thing anybody could do because it doesn’t help. It only harms and hurts. That’s exactly what it did to me. I ended up losing my marriage; I lost my home, I lost my job. Nothing really mattered anymore. Long story short, that’s how I ended up homeless, out on the streets from shelter to shelter.”

The low point came on a summer night in 2009. She was riding buses well after dark as a way to pass the time. When she couldn’t get into a shelter, the MTC bus became her overnight accommodations.

She got off a bus about 1 a.m. near the corner of Emerson and 22nd in north Minneapolis.

“It was the end of the line. I got off,” she said. “And, a car pulled up and that was pretty much all I can remember. They grabbed me and got me in the car. And, I came to in an apartment building in the lobby on the floor. I was beat up pretty good.”

The police “never did find out who did it,” she said. What the assailants did was beat her, rape her and dump her off at the building.

Amazingly, Gergen is not bitter today. She has “just a nickel” to her name, plus a few sentimental possessions like pictures of her parents and children. But, she cannot be swayed from the overflowing gratitude of her new life, one low on money but high on contentment.

At the moment, Gergen does volunteer work at Higher Ground, including helping other residents and unloading food shelf deliveries each week. She also recently testified at the State Capitol to advocate for an increase in state housing funds, a portion of which could go to Catholic Charities’ Dorothy Day Center ReVision initiative (see sidebar).

She hopes to eventually go back to work, although is unable to do so now because of health issues.

“I would love to [go back to work],” she said. “Actually, I’ve thought about going back to school and maybe getting a degree in social work. I would love to do that because that would be another way of me helping out and paying it forward for the goodness that I have received. I would love just to know that one other person gets to feel like I do right now.”

Dorothy Day Center ReVision needs legislative action to advance

Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis is waiting for action on housing and general obligation bonding bills in the state Legislature before moving forward on its Dorothy Day Center ReVision project.

Last December, the agency announced plans for a new homeless shelter, connection center and permanent housing. The shelter and connection center — modeled after Catholic Charities’ Higher Ground facility in Minneapolis — seeks $18 million from the $100 million being advocated for statewide housing projects. The “St. Paul Higher Ground and Connection Center” would provide emergency shelter, “pay-for-stay” beds and private, permanent apartments all in one building along with supportive services. For the project’s separate permanent housing portion, supporters are requesting $17 million in state funds.

“The more we’re investing in housing throughout the state, the less homelessness we’ll see, and the less burdensome on Dorothy Day,” said Tim Marx, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Given the urgent situation at the Dorothy Day Center, the agency plans to build on or near its current site downtown — a decision prompted by opposition from residents in the neighborhood of the proposed building site in the northeast quadrant of downtown St. Paul.

The Dorothy Day Center started as a drop-in facility in 1981 but turned into a temporary overnight shelter when homelessness increased. Because the center wasn’t designed to house people, and conditions are overcrowded, unsanitary and undignified.

What’s needed most to move the project forward is the Legislature and governor responding to what the people have deemed important to solve homelessness, Marx said.

Each night at the center, which operates 24/7 for the entire year, more than 200 mats line the floor inches apart. Not only do people sleep on the mats, but they also eat and try to keep their belongings safe on them.

Since Minneapolis’ Higher Ground opened in 2012, there has been a 38 percent decrease in overnight shelter stays among people who use it most (single adults and veterans), and more than 95 men have moved from the temporary shelter into stable or permanent housing.

Marx’s optimistic scenario has construction of St. Paul’s Higher Ground beginning in 2015, with completion in 2016. The state Legislature will adjourn May 19. In the meantime, Marx asks for the public’s support.

“Advocacy, awareness and prayer are all equally important and add equal value to what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said.

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