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Homeless shelter helps transition

Ken Barr, stands in his Detroit Lakes apartment. The Compassion House and staff helped him get back on his feet and move into his first apartment. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham

There are a lot of adjectives that come to mind when thinking of a homeless shelter. Sad. Scary. Pathetic. Helpless.

But these are the words that often come to the minds of people who have never had to live in one of these shelters.

For those who have, there are many other words that surround them. Hope. God. Persistence. Repairs.

If it were not for these words, the men of the Compassion House in Detroit Lakes would stand very little chance of coming out the other end of their homelessness intact.

And while some of them won’t, some of them will. In part three of a series on these men and their struggles, the Detroit Lakes Newspapers takes you inside the life of one man who did. He isn’t perfect; he isn’t yet out of the woods, but he is trudging on.

Ken Barr

Ken Barr has what many would call a “baby face,” appearing more like an older teenager than the 26-year-old man he actually is. He’s quick to smile and polite. But a closer look and his eyes show a much older person – a person who started out as one of those kids now referred to as “disadvantaged.”

“My mom is legally blind, single parent of four kids, and I was the oldest,” said Barr. “I guess I came from what they call a ‘broken home.’”

Barr, who moved from Sacramento, Calif., to the Twin Cities when he was around 7 years old, said he and his mom and siblings moved constantly, never staying in one place very long.

“My mom had boyfriends, and a lot of them tended not to be the best father figures,” he said. “A lot of them did drugs and beat my mom.”

But according to Barr, at least one of those “boyfriends” taught him about one thing – drugs. He was only 13.

“He said, ‘If you’re going to smoke pot, you smoke it with me,’” said Barr, now rolling his eyes at the irony. Barr says he respects his mother and believes she always did the best she could, but keeping food on the table and a roof over their heads was always a challenge, and Barr found himself a troubled teen, trying to keep his younger siblings out of trouble. It’s another irony that doesn’t escape him.

“Minneapolis isn’t the worst place on earth, but it can be pretty bad,” he said, “especially if you’re moving around a lot because when you’re always in a new school trying to make friends, the people who tend to be open enough to let you be their friend are the wrong kind of people.”

Barr never graduated high school. He maintained part-time employment at a Jimmy John’s sub shop in Minneapolis, but as an adult it was never enough to get his own place.

He tried to get help from the county, but was told he made too much. He tried to get another job, but kept running up against brick walls due to a growing rap sheet of relatively minor run-ins with the law.

“Well, one of them was a felony because when I was 19 and homeless, I didn’t have any food or anything, so I wrote out some bad checks – and they added up to be enough for a felony, and employers don’t like that.”

With DUIs on his record, Barr also didn’t have a car, which meant his employment options were further limited.

When he couldn’t find a couch to crash on, Barr would pop in and out of homeless shelters. His life had, up until that point, been “lonely” and “rough,” but according to Barr, that’s when God stepped in.

The warrant

Barr’s list of infractions against the law extended all the way into Becker County, where there was a warrant out for his arrest.

“It was a misdemeanor theft charge from Walmart,” he explained, adding that he never showed up for court in Detroit Lakes because he didn’t have a vehicle. But drinking a beer outside at a buddy’s place in Minneapolis last fall, that baby face got him some attention from a police officer driving by.

“He stopped and asked for my ID to see if I was old enough to drink, and when he checked my ID, he found out there was a warrant out,” he said, adding that he got hauled away with nothing but his flip flops.

After serving a few days in the Becker County jail, Barr was released with nothing but those flip flops.

“I had no wallet, no phone, no way home,” he said.

Strangely enough, he walked to Jimmy Johns in Detroit Lakes to see if they could help.

“How weird for them,” he laughed. “I walked in there and asked if they could help me get back to Minneapolis.”

Well aware of how odd that request would be, Barr says nobody was willing to hop right in their car and drive a total stranger to the Twin Cities, so he found the nearest church – Holy Rosary Catholic Church.

“They told me they could help with a bus or train ticket, but because of the schedule, it wouldn’t be for a few days,” said Barr, who was then told of this place called The Compassion House.

“When I walked in, Lynette was like a saint,” he said of the facility’s director, Lynette Price. “She let me shower, gave me some food and started mapping out a plan with me to get me back home,” said Barr, adding that they even drove him to Fargo to catch the bus to the Twin Cities.

Another trip back to Detroit Lakes for a court hearing later that month had Barr popping back into the Compassion House again for another quick stay. Although Barr says Price had offered him a longer stay at the shelter, he says he didn’t realize he wanted to take her up on it until he got back to Minneapolis.

“I got there, took a look around and just knew that if I stayed there, nothing would ever change for me,” he said, feeling some sort of divine pull back to Detroit Lakes. One call to Price, and he was back on his way to The Compassion House.

‘A God thing’

Barr knew what homeless shelters were like, and according to him, they’re not typically like the Compassion House.

“It’s an amazing place – the care they give you. They genuinely cared, and it made me feel better,” he said, impressed at how the structure there required the men to keep busy, find a job and set some goals.

Because Barr had come to a point in his life where he knew he wanted to take a different sort of path from what he had always known, he embraced the “God-given resource” around him.

“I started volunteering at different places because I wanted to give back,” he said, “I wanted to make the most of what I was being given.”

Barr decided to give Jimmy Johns another visit while looking for employment.

“I know it was weird again, but I went back in there and said, ‘I don’t need a ride this time, but I really could use a job,’” he laughed.

Despite some of what Barr calls “understandable apprehension” from the owners of the shop, he was given another shot.

“And after only two or three weeks, I was bumped up to full time,” he said, smiling broadly.

Barr continued to push forward with a new outlook on life.

“It was like, the second I let go of control and put my faith into something bigger than myself, good things started happening,” he said, giving credit to the Bible studies and support meetings at the Compassion House.

But he wouldn’t be there long. In November, Barr, who bounced around from place to place growing up, had finally saved up enough money to get a place of his own. He now lives in his own apartment and is reliant on nobody but himself.

“I really feel like God wanted me here,” he said, certain that the warrant that caught up with him was part of a divine plan.

But this story isn’t a fairytale; it’s a realistic look at a young man who had waded through troubled waters in search of a life preserver. And although he believes he found one, Barr is also keenly aware of the issues he is left with.

He is still struggling to keep himself afloat. In fact, he recently got another DUI and will likely be serving some time in the Becker County Jail for that crime. He knows that a lifetime of problems and bad choices will not allow him to function with a clean slate.

He presses on damaged but optimistic.

“I’m seeing a therapist, and that’s really helping me talk through some of my problems and try to figure things out from my past, and honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever get it all figured out,” he said. “But, it’s progressive.”

Despite his pending legal issues, Barr is thinking past that already, planning for his goals of getting his GED and even taking some college classes.

“I’d like to maybe get into something like business management. Something that will help me move forward with my life,” said Barr, who says for the first time in his life, he doesn’t feel alone.

“I never had any real friends until I moved up here,” he said, reflecting back to the pivotal moments of his time in the Compassion House – moments that he believes have set him up for the life he’s always wanted.

“It was God’s blessing,” he said, “and I plan on taking full advantage of it.”