Guest Column by Riley Worth
The Semcac offices are tucked away in a nondescript building off Stevens Street here in town, behind a flooring company, a fast food restaurant, a hotel, a hair salon and a massage parlor.
I never knew Semcac was there until this spring when our Albert Lea Leadership class toured the facility. It makes sense though; having shelter residences for those experiencing homelessness, being out of the way in a nondescript building makes sense.
“It’s a humbling experience for people,” said SEMCAC Albert Lea Director Vicky Helland, of homelessness. “They don’t necessarily want everyone to know they are in a shelter.”
Semcac has three apartment shelters as part of its building. They are reserved almost exclusively — based on current trends of homelessness — for families with young children. The face of homelessness has changed, according to Helland.
“We think of men standing under the bridges, or in box cars, really scruffy looking,” she said. “It’s not that anymore. A lot of it is teen homelessness. They are couch hopping, from friend to friend, and it’s growing. Family homelessness is growing.”
Albert Lea has two fortunate advantages in dealing with poverty and homelessness that similarly sized communities don’t: 1) We have a homeless shelter in town. It’s the only shelter Semcac has in its seven-county group. 2) And we have Vicky Helland.
Helland has been in her position since August 2005. She grew up in this area, graduated high school in 1970, and as she described it “came from a pretty dysfunctional home.” A few years after graduation she went to work for her family’s business. She worked there for 18 years until it closed in 1996. In her mid-40s, Helland made a life-altering decision.
A nephew told Vicky that his best friend’s mother had spent the last 10 years overseas as a missionary with Lutheran Volunteer Corp. She’d always wanted to do missionary work. Vicky got a number from her nephew and called it.
She soon found herself on the phone with people at various inner-city homeless shelters, and she found a connection with a woman running a shelter in Washington, D.C. After nearly 20 years in the family business, she suddenly found herself in the middle of what she called a “spiritual awakening.”
“I didn’t have one single ounce of fear,” she said, even as she boarded her first Amtrak ride to leave the comforts of small-town Minnesota for the nation’s capital and its serious issues of poverty, to work in a women’s shelter. She would live and work with 21-, 22-, 23-year-olds, while she was twice their age, helping women most recently out of treatment who had nowhere else to turn. She would be a volunteer coordinator and eventually work as a counselor for the shelter.
Vicky recalled her only concern during her phone interview that day: “What if the women don’t relate to me?”
The woman interviewing her responded, “If they don’t relate to you, you’ll have a lot of time on your hands.”
Vicky said that never proved to be an issue, even though she was a country mouse being thrown into this inner-city situation. The reason she was able to connect?
“I was a single mother who’d raised my children. I’m also in recovery. And I’d come from a volatile home. That’s a lot of what their stories were,” she said.
And that’s what business Helland remains in: The business of changing people’s stories. The business of giving destitute people a safe place to regain their footing. The business of instilling in people the belief that they, too, can escape the world of full-time, life-crisis management. That they too can have a future story.
She gave up trying to save her family’s business years ago, and transitioned into the business of saving families.
And now she does so on a daily basis, in her hometown. Vicky helps Semcac’s temporary residents apply for Section 8 assistance. She and other local organizations assist shelter residents in finding jobs, applying for school or, in some cases, in applying for disability. No pets, no alcohol, no illegal drugs and no firearms are allowed in the shelter. Residents meet weekly with Helland to discuss their progress.
“They have to tell me what’s going on, what they’re doing,” she said. “Each family sets goals.”
When asked what she wanted people to know about this little nondescript, out-of-the-way community action shelter, she said “I want people to know anybody can be one paycheck away from being in a homeless shelter,” she said. “One mental illness away. One loss of a spouse. One loss of a job. One medical emergency. And we can all be homeless.”