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Look Beneath the Stereotypes Surrounding Homelessness

It's easy to dismiss the homeless when they're begging at the corner of a busy intersection, but their personal stories often belie easy stereotypes.

One of the blessings of being a journalist is that you get to meet and speak with a wide assortment of people—each with their own perspectives and background.

Often, those conversations are enlightening. Only rarely, however, do they cause me to step back and re-evaluate my own life.

That was the case earlier this summer when I spoke with Anna Richardson, a 26-year-old former methamphetamine addict and mother of two. Anna is 19 months clean, but her road to sobriety wasn’t easy. Homeless for a year, she went through treatment and fought desperately to regain custody of her daughters.

Anna is one of many people that my co-workers and I interviewed over the past several weeks as we compiled a series of articles tracking rising homelessness rates in Dakota County. We spoke with homeless shelter directors, county agencies, nonprofit leaders and political figures throughout Dakota County.

Over and over, they told us that homelessness—long thought to be a problem associated exclusively with urban centers in Minnesota—was now spreading to the suburbs.

This week, you’ll get to review the statistics, listen to the experts and read about the county’s new plan to address and end homelessness locally.

But this week you’ll also learn about the lives of people like Marcy Thomas, who lost her position as a financial analyst, became addicted to crack cocaine and wound up in jail. People like John P., a 52-year-old grandfather who is ashamed to be homeless and struggles with his self-worth.

People like Anna, who lived out of a truck for four months after her life came crashing down during a police raid.

A 2009 estimate puts the homeless population in Minnesota at roughly 13,100—and roughly three-quarters of those people suffer from chronic health conditions, chemical dependency, a serious mental illness, a traumatic brain injury or some combination thereof, according to statewide estimates.

It may be easy to dismiss them when they're standing at the corner of a busy intersection with a cardboard sign begging for money, or waiting for spare change at a bus stop.

But their stories—when you really dig into them—don’t offer any quick answers, or fall easily into any of the traditional stereotypes that we commonly associate with homeless people.

Toward the end of our interview, I asked Anna what lessons she took away from her own struggle.

"You never know why someone’s homeless," she told me. "In the blink of an eye, you can lose it. Everything can be so fragile."

Editor's Note: Homelessness rates in Dakota County and other suburban communities in Minnesota have risen substantially in the last five years. This article is part of a Patch series exploring that trend. Click on the links below to read other articles on the topic.

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