MANKATO — Dana Wagner and Jacob Soppa are coming up on two months of the same nighttime routine.
It starts with them and a couple of friends packing into their old Jeep to head to their home for the evening.
The group arrives at one of six churches hosting the Connections rotating homeless shelter for the week, places their belongings next to a bed, and spends the evening chatting with fellow guests, watching television and planning for the next day.
It’s not a situation any of them want to be in, but it’s a far cry from sleeping in the Jeep.
Wagner, 39, and Soppa, 26, know this all too well. They were sleeping in their vehicle for the week before the shelter opened in late October.
As newcomers to Mankato, the couple wasn’t sure what they’d find when they drove to town to escape a toxic environment at Soppa’s family farm in Wisconsin — a property they said they poured their paychecks into to save from foreclosure.
At first, life in their new city didn’t start out well. The two came to stay with Wagner’s relative, but the situation turned out not much better than the one they’d left.
Add in the announced closure at Quad Graphics in Waseca, where Soppa started working shortly after they arrived, and the area wasn’t seeming like the fresh start they’d wanted.
“When that news came, it sort of was like a slap in the face,” Wagner remembered thinking. “Like what are we going to do now?”
Without enough funds to pay for housing, the vehicle was one of their few housing options left. They remember being nearly out of gas when they heard about the shelter on the same Sunday it opened in late October.
Sitting at the shelter at Crossview Covenant in North Mankato on Tuesday — Soppa's birthday — the two said they remain hopeful they’ll find their own place to live in the area. Like their fellow guests, though, they still face the same challenges most people without homes do in trying to reach that step.
For one, each time it feels like they’re close to having enough money, new expenses rear their ugly head. The car is a good example. Having a car can be simultaneously invaluable and a headache if you’re homeless. It provides storage and shelter on top of the obvious transportation, but it comes with costs.
A shot tire or empty tank of gas requires money that could be going toward saving up for housing instead. The mobility and shelter it provides make it just worth it.
Living out of a car, however, is no way to stay organized as you’re applying for jobs, Wagner said.
“It’s hard to keep anything in order,” she said. “You feel like your life is a disaster.”
In contrast, entering the shelter provides nightly relief. If by night Wagner and Soppa are assured a warm bed, by day they’re working to get out of the situation.
Soppa found another full-time job in town, while Wagner is taking care of medical issues so she can get back in the workforce herself. They’re optimistic their experience laying concrete will pay off once winter is over.
But they’ll have to get through winter first, which is where the shelter comes in. Adding to its uniqueness within the region, the shelter takes in both men and women. A stay at other shelters would’ve meant separating the two.
Soppa could go to The Salvation Army men’s shelter, but he said he wouldn’t even consider leaving Wagner to fend for herself. The two rely on each other. Being homeless is new to the couple, and the two said they plan to get through it together.
At the rotating shelter that moves to different church sites, they’re among more than 20 other guests. There are couples just like them, mothers and their children, and single men among the nightly population.
Erica Koser, a pastor at Centenary United Methodist who’s gotten to know the pair since they came to town, said the shelter was designed to help people like Wagner and Soppa who need emergency assistance and are intent on working to find their own housing.
“We consider everyone that’s at the shelter part of our family,” she said. “We want to see them succeed and move on.”
Koser is one of the many supportive folks Wagner and Soppa said they’ve encountered since coming to town. Between ECHO Food Shelf, Open Door Health Center, the shelter and The Salvation Army, Wagner said, she’s been surprised by the support available in Mankato.
All those organizations help far more than just the couple. The Salvation Army alone served more than 1,800 people in Blue Earth County and North Mankato in its last fiscal year. The emergency social services they provide to applicants who meet specific criteria range from car repairs to utility assistance.
Noreen Wolf, case worker at the nonprofit, said the assistance is there to help people get their lives together.
“The bottom line is just to get people on their feet and try to steer them,” she said. “Our goal is to get people on their feet and stable.”
As much as anything else, Wagner said the moral support they've received in Mankato has been huge. They've found it at the organizations and among their fellow shelter guests experiencing similar struggles.
Over Christmas the couple plans to stay with what they've come to think of as their new family at Centenary United Methodist, where the shelter rotates to beginning today. The church has a dinner planned, which Koser said is meant to make guests feel as welcome and close to home as possible.
Without family to go back to, Wagner and Soppa said they hope to eventually make Mankato their permanent home. It's starting to feel like it at least, they said, thanks to support they never imagined they'd need but are now grateful for.
“It’s the best feeling you can have in your life,” Wagner said of the helping hands they've encountered. “Especially when your family has turned you away or actually caused harm.”