“I never thought I’d get there. Never. Never thought I’d escape the homeless system,” says 65-year-old Daniel Velner. His eyes water up.
“But now I have my own place, my own apartment. That last step, going from transitional housing to my own apartment, is the hardest. You’re afraid. You don’t know what’s going to happen. And I’ve been homeless for seven years and in that amount of time you literally forget basic skills like balancing a checkbook. Or making a schedule. Gone.” Velner points to his head.
Velner is the first formerly homeless person hired in the Fall of 2021 by the charity ‘Prevail News,’ doing business as ‘Prevail Mix,’ and operating out of Zion Lutheran Church in Saint Paul, Minn. Prevail Mix is a distribution and online sales non-profit offering pancake/waffle, cake and corn muffin mixes from organic ingredients and local producers (when available).
Jerry Sedgewick, the director of Prevail Mix says, “I’ve known Daniel for some of those years when he was on the streets. He helped me on a street newspaper we started in 2016 called Prevail News, also the name of our non-profit. The street newspaper went bust after giving it a try in the Twin Cities of Minnesota and running out of money.
Undeterred after giving up on the newspaper model, I went on to explore other ways to employ street survivors. Looking at ‘easy entry’ sorts of businesses, one stood out: cottage food production and subsequent sales at farmers markets.”
Cottage foods are the kinds of foods you can make in a home kitchen versus a commercial one. Sedgewick explored dry pancake mixes, tested ingredients in his home kitchen, had others try them, and he received rave reviews.
“But each mix has requirements,” Sedgewick says. “Mixes have to be easy to make (just add liquid), packaging has to be biodegradable, ingredients need to be organic. I found a great family mill named ‘Whole Grain Milling’ in a southern Minnesota town named ‘Welcome,’ and they grow their own corn with a higher protein content from which they bag corn meal. And I found guar gum as a binder. Guar gum, made from guar beans, are reputed to burn carbohydrates, which is necessary after a meal of pancakes.” He smiles and nods his head.
Sedgewick continues, “Once I was through testing recipes, it was too late in the year to apply for a farmer’s market booth. I found that it isn’t so expensive to get a license as a food producer, so the next step was to find a commercial kitchen. I know that many churches have kitchens that are unused most the week. So I approached my first church, and, bam, they opened their doors.”
“Jerry came in, sat down with me and shared his concept, and I said, ‘Sure. This would be wonderful. It’s in line with what our community already does with our food shelf on Thursdays,’” says John Marboe, the pastor of Zion Lutheran church.
Working with a member of Zion, Sue Widerski, Velner and Sedgewick ironed out kitchen protocol. After a visit from the state’s inspection bureau, they started production under the name “Prevail Mix.” They found their first store to sell Prevail Mix: Hampden Park Co-op on Raymond Avenue in Saint Paul, Minn.
In the meantime, Velner still lived in transitional housing.
Velner says, “Through a significant donation, we were able to move forward with some guarantee of future wages while getting our feet wet. I was able to get a charming studio apartment in the neighborhood I wanted to be in.”
Velner’s exit from transitional housing opened up a room for a person on the streets: a two for one. Sedgewick says he remembers once in a conversation with Velner we agreed that, before we die, if we got just one person out of homelessness, just one, that would be like, yeah, we did something with our lives. And now they get to free more from the homeless system as ‘Prevail Mix’ grows.
“And I’m the guy who was delivered from the homeless system,” Velner says. “You have no idea what it’s like, no idea, to move from years of being on the streets and then to transitional housing to now have a private shower, a private room, a private kitchen. And no noise down the hall. It’s almost like I’m in a dream.”
Any potential cuts in SNAP funding from the next budget would lead to increased needs at Food Shelves. An interview with Christine Pulver from the Keystone agency in Saint Paul, Minnesota addresses what could happen if SNAP funding is cut. See the video below:
A full transcript of the interview will be posted in the coming week.
Why is a question nearly all of us ask ourselves when we see those with cardboard signs at freeway exits and entrances. Why? Why are those who are flying signs needing to beg? Why can’t they get a job? Why can’t they find a home?
In a new groundbreaking film, Guttered, Jerry Sedgewick of Saint Paul, Minnesota, experiences homelessness to discover why. With a hidden camera he goes through the experience of being on the streets.
“It was a response to a dare by a friend. I made friends with Daniel when attempting to get the homeless in the Twin Cities to sell newspapers. It took me a while to get up the guts to be homeless for a day, to stay at a shelter and eat at soup kitchens, but eventually I did it,”
His friend, Daniel Velner, a formerly homeless man who also lives in Saint Paul, takes a pivotal role in the documentary. His story is particularly compelling for those who challenge the homeless to get jobs.
“I worked in IT for almost 20 years. I had a disagreement with a person in HR, got fired, and I hit a downward spiral. Divorce, bills to pay off, and suddenly I’m sleeping in a car,” Daniel says. “After that, after hitting rock bottom and experiencing depression, loss of dignity, no address, no place to call home, and hopelessness, I had to put all my energy just toward survival.”
Daniel’s isn’t the only story told in Guttered. Others tell jaw-dropping stories, stories that pull at your heart.
“When I saw the film, I couldn’t believe Jerry got people to say what they did,” says Ed Fisher, a board member of Prevail News, the non-profit agency producing the film. “It tears your heart out.”
Sedgewick adds, “I couldn’t believe these formerly homeless people said those things myself. But what was equally compelling wasn’t just the stories, it was the day-to-day experience of being homeless that I went through, and the answer to the question, why the homeless? In making the film I found that there were as many ways to become homeless as there are people, with some common threads. But what I found groundbreaking was the answer to why the homeless stay homeless.”
Why many homeless stay that way and persist, especially among single males, is an issue that has puzzled those who work with street survivors. But in the film Sedgewick presents an answer.
“As a scientist, I discovered some compelling reasons why, and along with a physician at Mayo, Jennifer Hallmark-Hill and dozens who have studied trauma, it has to do with trauma,” says Sedgewick. “Trauma can lead to long term behavioral changes that become irreversible, explained in scientific circles as behavioral epigenetics, changes that occur around the DNA. That’s why we must get people immediately into housing, what’s called Housing First, before trauma sets in, although I believe that incarceration and war-time service is also traumatic and a gateway to homelessness.”
When asked what made him come to this conclusion, Daniel interjects, “It’s because I said that being homeless gets in your DNA. And Jerry took this literally.”
“Right,” Sedgewick says. “It’s because I came across so many who had the same personality characteristics, basically the same difficulties in long-term decision making; decision making that was based only on survival for the day. So it wasn’t an individual thing, it was a shared behavior which then points to something basic, like alterations in how the DNA responds to the stressful environment.”
Sedgewick hopes that his experience, the stories he heard, and the understanding that those on the streets can be traumatized and behaviorally altered gets to a worldwide audience. The board of Prevail News decided to put the documentary on YouTube so that it can be seen for free. Guttered can also be seen at the PrevailNews website: http://www.PrevailNews.org.