After decades on the streets, St. Paul man authors "Homeless is not Hopeless"

2017-03-20 | Pioneer Press

March 20--At least four times a day, John Fritz sits on the sofa of his modest St. Paul apartment off Ayd Mill Road and watches the freight trains roll outside. He eyes the bridge underpass beneath St. Clair Avenue and thinks: it's good to be indoors. After half a lifetime of homelessness, it's a welcome change.

"I could be living under that bridge, and by that freight track," said Fritz, 57, pointing through his living room window. "All I have to do is take a drink."

Fritz rode those freight rails for nearly 25 years, always imagining he'd live and die as a self-described tramp. Alcoholism and troubling memories of childhood abuse were his downfall. His moment of truth came on April 20, 2010, waking up in an Interstate 94 highway ditch near Snelling and University avenues, his last memory being the handmade sign he'd waved at drivers coming off the exit.

These days, he rents his own apartment, where he plays backgammon with friends, and has discovered a passion for live theater. He's sober now, and reconciled with his two adult sons, who had been estranged. Last year, he rode an Amtrak train to visit them in Portland, Ore. -- the first train ride he can ever remember paying for.

And he's a published author. His sometimes-hilarious, sometimes-terrifying paperback autobiography, "Homeless Is Not Hopeless," landed on Amazon.com in October. On the evening of April 4, he'll sign copies at the Subtext bookstore in downtown St. Paul.

The Beacon Interfaith group, which housed Fritz for 18 months in their dorm-like "American House" group home complex in Lowertown, points to him as a success story -- an illustration of how even the chronic homeless can find stability with the right support services, housing being chief among them.

"Get people in homes, and they can start working on their addictions," said Fritz, who credits Beacon Interfaith with helping him to stay sober at a crucial time in his treatment program. "And then they can start working on their mental health."

State officials believe the same "housing first" approach has helped cut the numbers of unsheltered, long-term homeless in Minnesota nearly in half, from more than 1,450 people during a one-day count in January 2010 to 749 in January 2016. Rather than wait for the chronic homeless to achieve sobriety or get a mental illness under control, the recent strategy has been to offer targeted housing services alongside, or even before, treatment services.

The thinking is that housing provides an important first step toward seeking mental health counseling and treatment for alcoholism and substance abuse, as well as other health conditions that can contribute to long-term homelessness. It's difficult to stick to a treatment regimen when you're constantly looking for shelter.

"Instead of saying to that person 'we'll get you into housing, but first you must address all these other issues in your life,' we've said let's get you into housing first, and then we will connect you to services," said Cathy ten Broeke, state director to prevent and end homelessness.

Fritz said this is the first time in his life he's taken medication for depression and anxiety on a regular basis and stuck to the schedule. It's common for the homeless to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. In the past, "when I quit my meds," Fritz writes in his book, "I start drinking."

Fritz, who was charged with driving under the influence at least a dozen times in his life, said he flunked out of substance abuse programs 16 times before he found stable housing.

"I'd been staying with people that were drinking and using dope," he recalled. "I'd sleep outside sometimes just to get away from it."

State counts of the unsheltered, "chronic" homeless show progress:

Jan. 2010: 1,451

Jan. 2016: 749

-- Heading Home Minnesota

RELATED: Read more about efforts to get the chronic homeless into housing.

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At the opposite extreme, alcohol was never allowed in the emergency shelters or missions -- one of the main reasons that he and others like him refused to step foot in those places.

"Rules," Fritz said. "Simple as that. Rules -- somebody telling you you've got to be in at this time of day, somebody telling you you've got to be out at this time of day."

Between the two extremes, American House provided him a kind of happy medium. Tenants were allowed to bring alcohol onto the premises, and "there's people drinking, but you can shut them out," said Fritz, pantomiming closing the door to his own room. "You've got your own space."

A STATEWIDE EFFORT

In 2013, the state of Minnesota launched the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness, which includes commissioners from 11 state agencies and the governor's chief of staff. The council oversees "Heading Home Minnesota," the umbrella term for 22 separate initiatives that seek to prevent or end homelessness in Minnesota.

Strategies include identifying young people aging out of foster care or juvenile corrections to help them come up with a plan and a place to stay once they turn 18. Another campaign focused on homeless veterans has housed some 800 vets in the past few years. "We expect to be able to declare that we've ended veteran homelessness in Minnesota in the not-too-distant future," ten Broeke said.

Yet another effort has aimed to increase the amount of family housing linked to support services, such as caseworkers who can help parents find job training and financial planning.

Despite the progress, officials say rising rental prices have put a strain on families just trying to get by. In Wilder Research surveys of the homeless, more than a third said they had lost their last home because of their inability to afford their rent or mortgage, and 22 percent said there is no housing they could afford.

CHRONIC HOMELESS

Fritz, who fled violence at home and moved out of his parents' house when he was 16, represents a different face of homelessness. A hardcore drinker, he spent a combined total of four years in county jails for DWIs, as well as four years in prison. Even surviving a train car derailment that killed an acquaintance wasn't enough to scare him into sobriety.

"I hate to put drinking as the face of homelessness, but it's got a lot to do with it," he said. "I consider myself 'chronic homeless.' I couldn't figure out how to get out of it."

Waking up in a highway ditch seven years ago convinced him he couldn't do it alone. A chaplain at the Union Gospel Mission outside downtown St. Paul convinced him to seek help at Region's Hospital, where concerned staffers threatened to have him committed to a state hospital if he didn't enter treatment.

For nearly four years, he took leadership roles in an Alcoholics Anonymous group that meets in downtown St. Paul.

Through a social services outreach agency, People Incorporated, he lined up free tickets to see live theatrical performances at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Over the past four years, he said, he's rarely missed a show. In fact, he's become a regular volunteer, leading tours backstage. Sometimes, he takes a date.

In October of 2012, when he moved into his own apartment, he threw himself "a big party," Fritz writes in his autobiography. "I made meatballs and chicken. I made all sorts of food, and I probably had 15 people here. I was in my glory. I was in my own home."

Standing in that apartment on Thursday, Fritz made a surprising prediction. Despite his outreach to others, a short speech he gave at the State Capitol rotunda during "Homeless Day on the Hill" last week, and all his optimism, he knows this battle isn't entirely winnable.

"We're never going to end homelessness," Fritz said. "There's too many people who want to live that way. But we can put a dent in it. And we can help the kids, before they become homeless."