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'At every turn, it’s something:' Moving from homelessness to housed comes with its own challenges

Rochester resident shares his experiences related to being homeless and now being on a new path.

Tyler Mayer
Tyler Mayer and his girlfriend Natasha Johnson stand alongside a Northwest Rochester bridge Mayer used to stay under while he was homeless. The couple are now expecting their first child and looking to make a new life for themselves.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Tyler Mayer spent 3 1/2 years homeless, living on Rochester’s streets, until a series of actions pointed him in another direction.

Today, the 33-year-old Rochester native is employed, has a place to call home and is expecting his first child with girlfriend Natasha Johnson. He said he sees a new future for himself.

We asked him about his experience and what he wants others in the community to know about homelessness.

What led to your being homeless? 

“I fell into homelessness on March 17, 2017. A lot of it had to do with choices I had made and mental health. I did fall into addiction. I refused help, and my family really didn’t know what to do.”

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You were living with family and kicked out based on your actions. What happened next? 

"There are many different stages of homelessness, but for me homelessness wasn’t a transition from being sheltered to unsheltered slowly. It happened instantaneously.

“Being that it happened in March, it was still cold out and I had nowhere to go. When that reality hit me, I almost went into survival mode. What do I do to stay warm? How do I get my next meal?

“My first thought was to go somewhere to get wifi, so I could call people and that was a very traumatic experience because I sat there for hours going through my phone to try to find someone. When I told them my situation, people were very wary to help.”

So, where did you end up? 

“Right away, I did start sleeping in places that are inhabitable for people. It wasn’t couch surfing from friend's house to friend’s house.

“It was literally finding a stairwell or an alley or a house under construction that was half built, just to hide and get a few hours of sleep before morning hit, so I could go somewhere public to stay warm. …

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“I came to realize really fast why you see homeless people sleeping during the day, rather than at night. It’s because it's the only safe time to sleep, especially in public spaces. I’ve fallen asleep on a park bench at night and been robbed, so during the night I would have to stay warm and keep my mind occupied until daybreak hit, and then I’d find a place to sleep.”

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So lessons came quickly. What happened next?

“When survival mode kicks in, there is nothing else on your mind. That’s one of the more unfortunate parts about homelessness, especially if you are unaware of any programs, like I was.

“Not knowing of steps to take to try to climb out of it, those thoughts don’t come to your mind. The only thoughts are ‘How do I stay warm tonight? How do I get my next meal?’

“You don’t have the comfort of having a place to stay or a full belly to be able to gather your thoughts and say ‘OK, what’s my next step to move forward in life?’ You don’t even get a minute in a day to be able to.”

So, you didn’t seek help? 

“It was not not wanting help, but just being scared to seek it. I ended up becoming so isolated from society and so alone that I ended up feeling undeserving of any services.

“I felt that I had failed myself in life, and why would anyone want to help me?”

What turned things around? 

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“I have to give a lot of credit to Olmsted County and the court system. I did get into some trouble while I was homeless and was put on probation, but it helped me tremendously. They not only held me accountable, but they showed compassion as well.

“I did end up in jail for a while, but they offered me treatment and I ended up taking it. It took a while for me to come around to take it or feel that I was worthy, but Dan (Fifield at The Landing MN) was a big part of making me want to do that as well. …

“When Dan showed the compassion he did, not just for me but all the other people that I knew living on the streets, it was a game-changer. For a complete stranger to show such compassion and not needing to know my story or why I was in the situation I was, it made all the difference.”

What happened after you went into treatment for your addiction? 

“Treatment did a lot for me. It taught me a lot of things and gave me a lot of tools and showed me the paths to take, but I went to a sober house for a while. I continued keeping up with probation. I did outpatient treatment.

“It’s one thing when you want something better in life, but knowing you deserve it and having the confidence to strive for it, I have to give a lot of credit to Dan again, because a lot of that spark I never had for 3 1/2 years.”

What was it like to finally have a place to stay?

“It is hard to transition. Being homeless for 3 1/2 years, I slept in my clothes every night, every day. It took a long time to start sleeping under a blanket again. I would sleep on top of the blanket in my clothes, because that was what I was used to …

“It wasn’t just that that I needed to get accustomed to. It was also going out in public and not being looked at like I was used to. That took me aback for a while.”

What do you mean? 

“Being homeless, when I went into public places, I always got stared at. I would get kicked out just for standing in a lobby not doing anything, but I’d get kicked out because they could see my attire and see I was homeless and they didn’t want me there.

“That hurt so bad. I’d say ‘I’m just trying to use the wifi quick so I can find a ride. I’m just trying to get warm because it’s February. Five minutes please.’ No.

“Even transitioning back into society or going back into public and going to a grocery store to buy groceries and talk to a cashier and have them give you the respect of conversation, that was a lot. There are so many other things. … At every turn, it’s something.”

You’ve mentioned some understanding why people who looked at you with a wary eye. Where does that come from? 

“I’m guilty of it as well. Before I became homeless, I’d see someone panhandling on the street and say ‘They just want to buy booze or they just want to buy drugs or this and that.’ But, that is not the case 100% of the time. Everyone’s story is different.

“I’m the first to admit I did put myself in homelessness, but out of all the people I met while I was homeless, some are good, some are bad, and some of them are the most kind-hearted individuals who would give their shirt off their back for you.”

You are now starting a new family, what else is in your plans for the future? 

“Not letting my past get in the way of my future, but using it as a tool in order to construct my future and learning from my mistakes and working with things homelessness did teach me, because it did teach me a lot of things. …

“I want to go to college to be a licensed drug and alcohol counselor.”

What lessons have you learned that you’d like to pass to others? 

“The one thing I wish people would understand is that a lot of people are misunderstood and we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Everyone has a story, and homelessness can happen to anyone.

“If anyone were in the shoes or position of someone homeless, they would hope that someone would be out there to help them and have that mindset. To know that you can be that person to help that person, even if you don’t know anything about them, just because they are human just because you are. If you can, you should.”

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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