John looks like a typical blue-collar worker. He favors blue jeans and T-shirts and hunting caps.
He's got a gritty edge to his voice from smoking, gray hair and an affable way about him. He looks just like any other guy eating in a local diner or driving a truck at a construction site. Indeed, until recently, John was one of them.
In spring of 2011, John—a single father whose daughter will soon graduate from nursing school—was fired from his job as a lead man in a lead smelting plant, a position he's held for years. In any other economy, at any other time, the loss of his job could have been easily remedied. But like many people in post-recession America, one false step plunged John into a cycle of poverty. For the first time, John became homeless.
"One thing that's surprising is the way I feel about myself. I'm not pushing a shopping cart with all my belongings in it ... but when I walk down the street or go to the store or something I get the feeling that people look at me like I'm homeless," John said. "And it doesn't make any sense because you can't tell. I dress halfway decent and I'm clean, but I still get the feeling that people are looking at me like I'm homeless. I don't know how to explain it."
Right out of high school, John found work in the same steel mill that had three generations of his family. His work in the industrial sector continued for years, as he bounced from job to job—and even served as a helicopter logger in Oregon.
Eventually, John, a California native, moved to Minnesota to support his brother, who was having difficulty coping with the loss of his teenage son in a car wreck. John got a job at a lead smelting plant in Eagan, and after three years was promoted to lead man.
"But I missed too many days at work. I got in trouble. I straightened up for a while, then I got in trouble again and then they fired me. It was my fault. I don't have anyone to blame for being where I'm at," John said.
Though John had lived through layoffs and losses before, this time was different.
"Before, I'd be out of work for a little while but I'd go find something else," John said. "It wasn't hard to find a job. I don't have any DUIs, no felonies, no nothing. But for some reason right now I'm having a hard time getting on my feet. I just want to work. I still got a good 10 years left in me and I've got a lot experience doing different stuff."
After John got fired, bad luck seemed to nip at his heels at every turn. Before he lost his job, he'd recently spent his savings on a used Jeep, which promptly broke down. John's car trouble complicated his efforts to find a job—and that problem was compounded when he was evicted from the apartment he held for five years.
"I stayed with my brother for a little while because he lives here, in Apple Valley," John said. "My brother has got my stuff right now. If it wasn't for him I would have lost it all. I have a whole apartment full of stuff over at his house—pots and pans and all that stuff. But he's married and it's a small house and they're struggling too so it was like I need to find some place to go. I found this place [the Cochran House, a homeless shelter in Hastings]."
For the last eight and a half months, John has been trying to get back on his feet. He's hopeful that he can still find a job, but has difficulty dealing with his surroundings.
"Staying here is not that bad," John said. "It's a little depressing and it can get to you if you let it. A lot of these guys are in a lot worse shape than I am, actually, so I can't complain too much, except for the way I feel about myself. I just can't get over that.
"There's a job out there for me, I know, it's just going to take some time. I just want to work. I don't care what kind of job it is right now. Anything. If I could get a job after a month or two I'd be able to get out of here."
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.