Monica Nilsson was the speaker at the 25th annual Homeless Memorial

Monica Nilsson

Monica Nilsson was the speaker at the 25th annual Homeless Memorial.

Monica walked into Simpson Housing Services Shelter late one night in 1994 for her first shift as an overnight volunteer and couldn’t believe that there were rows and rows of sleeping human beings on foam mats at her feet. She spent many more nights at Simpson as a staff member and later opened the Simpson Women’s Shelter in 1999 before leaving in 2004 to go to The Bridge, a sanctuary for runaway and homeless youth.

In 2007, she joined Hearth Connection, working with providers serving long-term homeless families, singles and youth in Duluth, the Iron Range and on reservations. Currently, Monica serves as Director of Street Outreach for St. Stephen’s Human Services, working primarily with people who are sleeping outside. She is also Board President of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, a coalition of 150 organizations serving those who are currently experiencing homelessness.

Read Monica’s talk from the service:


For those of you who have never been here, welcome to our little town near the big city.  We settled here 25 years ago when we didn’t belong anywhere else.  We needed a place to do what our ancestors did: rest after a hard day, eat, visit, comfort the sick, bury the dead.  Despite our differences, we came from people who farmed the land: the Natives, the Irish, the African American-some who did so to survive, some because they were the commodity traded.  But what our ancestors taught us is that while tough times don’t last, tough people do.  And some came to our little town during their tough time: for a week or a month or a very long time. And despite the community’s wishes, some people died here.

The Natives taught us to recognize our people in the four stages of life:  the babies, the youth, the adults, the elders.  Wendy was alone here, so she became part of our extended family; someone had to watch out for her, naturally, and if you’ve known love, you give some back.  John and Adam didn’t make it to town much, they lived on the outskirts, so some of the townspeople made home visits, to the woods.  Patrick didn’t feel well – but in our town everyone can see the doctor-or sometimes she’s a kind nurse-but despite the community’s wishes, some people still died.  Sometimes it’s their spirit that’s broken-and the townspeople were too busy needing to convince the politicians or the bank to spend time visiting with the lonely.

Every year, there are new people here: some of you arrived with everything you need; some of you came off the road with nothing.  No one is bothered that Brian sits in the public square all day-because in our little town nobody has to hold a sign that says, “I need help”.  We can see who does because we take the time to stop and look each other in the eye.

Some of those who founded this town have passed on but they left us with valuable lessons: Mary acted kind of crazy…but she taught us to accept people as they are; we all knew that one day we might be the one who acts kind of crazy and we want to belong too.  There were those who took to the drink or the pipe. They belong here too.  We thought we knew who the needy were because we could see theirs but guess what? They can see ours too. They see who needs a break, who needs a good laugh, which of us needs to swallow our pride and ask for help.  Our town strives to have someone available when someone needs to vent, needs to feel like they’re contributing or just needs someone to listen to them and not say a word.  We all need a soft place to land.  Sometimes that soft place is an address, sometimes it’s a person.  So, we all need to tell people they’re special before they’re gone.

And everyone needs to feel protected, defended. So the strong would do so: at home, in the community or far, far away. Some protected family or strangers or country.  Most who went far away came back healthy, to love and purpose, maybe even a parade. Some came home and the next battle began.  And despite the community’s wishes, some still died.

And so once a year, our town holds its own parade with banners and signs- but this one is at night-and no one lines the sidewalks to watch-because the whole town is marching down main street.  If not, they are back at the church getting supper ready – not dinner but supper, we’re a small town after all.  Others are creating sanctuary.

You see, at least once a year everyone gathers to pray: the Jews, the Christians, the Muslims, even a Mennonite.  There are the spiritual who wonder why there are so many religions. They don’t claim one… but they still have the faith. It’s said that religion without right action is anathema to God.  Our little town is faith…in action.

Our little town doesn’t have a newspaper so we don’t have obituaries, so, we rely on the ones who remember the stories and re-tell them to keep the deceased present.

Before I go, I have to tell you that I won’t be seeing you at the 50th anniversary of the founding of our little town.  You see, in 25 years, the babies will live in a place where they watch candles shine…on their birthday cakes at their own kitchen tables.  Youth will set fire…to bottle rockets and sparklers in their own backyards.  Adults will look each other in the eye by the glow of candlelight in friendship or romance across their own living rooms.  And elders will settle in for the night – not on dirt or a mat on the floor but in their own bedrooms, where they’re not afraid to fall asleep, and the glimmer of a single candle will provide peace and calm from the nightstand.  No, we won’t be seeing each other at the 50th anniversary because in 25 years, this little place will be a ghost town.


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