“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.”