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The World Needs More Men Like Joseph Desenclos

Article by Claudia Kittock

Joseph DesenclosJoseph Desenclos is an extraordinary man in the most ordinary ways. He believes in living an honorable life, in taking care of his neighbors, and of treating people as he would like to be treated. Revolutionary? Maybe!

When I became a board member of the DMNA, I knew that I had a lot to learn. As a lifetime academic, I began to study. I found that the best way to study was to attend meetings and listen. Some meetings I only attended once and others I attended regularly because I found the subject matter fascinating. Two of those meetings were Court Watch and the Task Force to End Street Homelessness. I found myself with much the same thoughts that I had in graduate school. “Please don’t call on me because I don’t know anything!” Luckily for me, no one called on me as I continued to soak up enormous amounts of knowledge.

After a few months of attending both these meetings, Joseph and I happened to sit beside each other and he introduced himself. When I explained that I was a newcomer with little to offer, just a need to learn, he asked me about my background and soon was urging me to use my expertise. Within a short amount of time, Joseph and I were friends, and my education really began.

Joseph’s journey to outreach was a journey of twists and turns. After college, Joseph was working for a construction company and doing well in every traditional way of measuring success. However, he realized what he hadn’t found yet was happiness, so he set out to change his life. He decided to volunteer at Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul, and after a short time he applied for and got a job there. 

Later, he applied to be a case worker at St. Stephen’s Human Services without having any experience as a case worker. During his interview, he was urged to think about doing outreach work and decided to try it. He knew very quickly that he had found what he was looking for, work that mattered to him and filled a need to be useful.

Joeseph with Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria "Rondo" Arradondo at a 2017 National Night Out event.

The lessons Joseph has learned doing outreach work are lessons I attempt to apply to my daily life. He has taught me so much and it is my honor to share a few of these lessons.

As an outreach worker, Joseph spends every day visiting people experiencing homelessness and working to build relationships. He learned that, as in all other parts of life, building a relationship takes time, and that is the essence of outreach work. Joseph has great patience which gives him the ability and willingness to put in as much time as it takes to make these important connections.

Curiosity is vital in outreach work, as is the ability to truly listen. Good outreach is respecting the privilege of the work itself as well as knowing when to be small. Joseph talks about sports, about the weather, about any item of interest as you would with anyone you have just met and may want to form a friendship.

Outreach work is about trust and being mindful of a person’s readiness and of personal boundaries. Imagine eating breakfast and having a stranger walk into your home and begin lecturing you about what you are doing wrong and what you need to change. It would be outrageous, and yet can be something that happens to a person experiencing homelessness.

Joseph, along with MDID Livability Team members Christian Huelsman and Liz Conley.

Joseph told me an amazing story from his first-grade class. A classmate was talking and Joseph was eager to join in. His teacher said, “Joseph, don’t talk unless you can improve the silence.”  Joseph uses that mantra in his daily work. Sometimes, being silent with another person is the most powerful thing.

Looking for similarities in people is a guiding principle of outreach, and should be for all of us in our day to day existence. If we can hone in on how each and every person we meet is like us, the differences aren’t so important. Finding those similarities is important work.

People who are experiencing homelessness are not ‘homeless people’. Each and every one had a life before experiencing homelessness, and hopes to have a life after this period in their life. What happens to cause homelessness? Too many reasons to imagine. People experiencing homelessness are not a monolithic group.  There is as much variation in this group as in any group of people. The title of ‘homeless person’ can engender powerlessness and be degrading and debilitating. The experience of being homeless is a period of life, not the defining part of any life.

When someone decides to sleep in your neighborhood, they make that decision for many of the same reasons you decided to live there. It may be because they feel safe here, or love the river, or enjoy the green spaces, or just love the vibe of the neighborhood. No one wants to experience homelessness, but while that is a reality, looking for a reasonable place to sleep is a priority.

Joseph is an important teacher and friend in my life. I learn from him every time we talk and I am so honored to be his student. He is extraordinary in all his ordinariness. Joseph shows us all how we need to live through his quiet example and important work. 

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About Claudia Kittock

Claudia is a resident of the Mill District. In addition to writing for Mill City Times, she is a founding Board Member of Friends of the Mill District. Claudia is the author of Health Through Chaos, mentors young adults at YouthLink, and has served on the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association (DMNA).


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