“I Had Never Talked to a Homeless Person Before”

On Oct. 22, Wilder Research will conduct the ninth statewide survey​ of people who are homeless. Over the past several months, volunteers have been selected and trained to help conduct interviews at more than 300 shelters and temporary housing locations throughout Minnesota. Results of the survey will be available in 2016.
The interviews can be eye-opening for volunteers, as Dave Ekelund learned when he volunteered for the most recent survey three years ago.

Stepping Up After Last-Minute Plea

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You never know when your life is going to be changed forever. But that is what happened to one “accidental” volunteer when Wilder Research recruited him to interview homeless adults at the Dorothy Day Center in Saint Paul for the triennial Statewide Homeless Study in 2012.
It started at Living Table UCC in South Minneapolis. Greg Owen, Senior Research Manager for Wilder Research, put out a plea for volunteers for the Statewide Homeless Study, due to begin just days hence. Several additional shelter locations had been added at the last minute and trained volunteers were urgently needed. In all, the study activates about 1500 volunteers and conducts more than 4500 interviews statewide.
Dave Ekelund, an active community volunteer from Richfield and member of the congregation, stepped up and said yes. He received training on what to expect at the large downtown Saint Paul shelter, and how to interview clients using an extensive 130-question survey developed by Wilder Research. On the day of the study, he arrived at the shelter at 5:30 a.m., just as clients were rolling up their bedding and stowing their worldly goods in small lockers before having breakfast and going out into the cold for the day.
“I was totally unprepared for what hit me,” says Dave. “I had no idea of the magnitude and the need.”

Reality of Homelessness

Interview volunteers greeted and served breakfast, then the real work began. “The interview questions are wide ranging and very personal,” says Dave. “But the people I interviewed were candid and forthcoming. People were honest (the survey is anonymous), and I found them to be really engaging. I guess I was a little surprised by that. I had never talked to a homeless person before.”
Dave says he listened deeply to what people had to say, and through the simple experience of conducting an interview, realized how uninformed and blind to the harshness and reality of homelessness and hunger he had been. “The needs are simply overwhelming,” he says. Afterward, he admits to feeling a little hopeless himself. When he came out as a gay man nearly 35 years ago, he felt he “went overnight from being a respectable community member to being someone who was part of a group that is in the minority and ‘different’,” says Dave. “I know something about being marginalized.​
“I have always thought of myself as someone who is well-informed on social issues and assumed I knew something about homelessness and hunger, especially since for a large part of my career, I was in the food distribution business,” says Dave. “But I was blown away by what I saw and heard that day.
“I want to change things in a positive way. I care a lot about real underlying needs and issues in our society. So I decided to ‘pick up shovel’ and start working on it.”

Life-Changing Experience

Among other things, Dave began working to open “Spirit on Lake,” a project on Lake Street in Minneapolis that provides senior housing for those in the LGBT community—the facility includes five units of housing for homeless GLBT seniors. He also serves as a befriender and listener for people going through crisis.
Reflecting on serving as a Wilder Homeless Study Volunteer, Dave is quick to respond.
“It was a life-changing experience.”
 

 Quick Links

 
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For more information about the homeless study, visit www.mnhomeless.org.
 

 Other Volunteer Opportunities

 

​Volunteer spots are full for this year's homeless survey, but Wilder offers numerous rewarding volunteer opportunities in other areas of the foundation.

Visit our volunteer opportunities page or email volunteers@wilder.org for more information.