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Conifer Estates tenants Nate Weir and Elizabeth Thrall stand in their kitchen Friday and tell how the facility helped them defeat homelessness. Crystal Dey | Bemidji Pioneer

Rising up from homelessness: Bemidji collaborative project helps 32 families

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BEMIDJI — The life of a phoenix is renewed from a pile of ash. The same could be said for Nate Weir after his rental home was robbed and burned down Memorial Day weekend. Weir now lives, befitingly, on Phoenix Loop in Bemidji with his girlfriend Elizabeth Thrall in Conifer Estates.

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Conifer Estates is a supportive and transitional housing project that has been serving homeless families in Bemidji since 2012.

Thrall was living with her sister in Blackduck when she received the call she was accepted at Conifer Estates in August. She had been homeless for two years with her three children.

“It gives me a sense of security,” Thrall said.

Although Thrall was living with family, she was homeless.

“It actually really sucks. You don’t know where to start,” she said.

Weir and Thrall are one of 19 families currently living in the Conifer Estates townhomes. The couple has four children between them living in their spacious, two-story home. Weir works at the new Office Max store in Bemidji and Thrall has plans to become a medical transcriptionist.

“We were able to afford a decent Christmas for the kids,” Thrall said.

“We started with nothing and this is what we have so far,” Weir said from the couple’s kitchen.

The property has five, one-bedroom units that can accommodate two people, five two-bedroom apartments that can house four people and 10 three-bedroom homes that allow for six family members.

A total of 32 families have been assisted with achieving self-sufficiency since the doors opened in July 2012.

Because of its track record of helping the homeless, Conifer Estates was recently awarded the 2013 Commissioner’s Circle of Excellence Award by the Minnesota Department of Human Services at a ceremony in St. Paul. The organization was recognized for outstanding contributions to human services program clients.

Conifer Estates was developed by the Headwaters Regional Development Commission and is owned by the Beltrami County Housing and Redevelopment Authority. Bi-County Community Action Programs is the primary service provider. The Red Lake Housing Authority and Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Housing Authority each lease five units for tribal members.

Working together

Security cameras and the on-site caretaker, Joe VanHorn, are two things Weir appreciates at Conifer Estates. Another is the management’s ability to work with residents.

“It’s hard to come up with a deposit and first month’s rent when you’re at ground zero,” Weir said.

Weir and Thrall said they plan to move to a house in a year or two when they are financially stable so their children can have pets.

Orlando Fineday moved in to Conifer Estates in July 2012. Fineday lives in one of the three-bedroom units with his wife, Julie, and four children. Before moving to Conifer Estates, he was living in a trailer house, with deteriorating flooring and paying $900 a month in rent.

Barb Meuers, Conifer Estates’ program manager, said low-paying jobs and lack of affordable housing are contributors to homelessness in the area. Fineday agreed, “There are a lot of jobs out there that only pay $8 an hour.”

Weir said after the fire, his landlord offered to rent him a resort cabin, but the rent exceeded his income.

“Any one of us is a paycheck away from being homeless,” said Julie Kurschner-Pineda, homeless resource program manager for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Housing.

Kurschner-Pineda explained many people who are moving into Conifer Estates are coming in from being long-term homeless.

“My family has dealt with long-term homelessness,” Fineday said.

People who have been homeless for one consecutive year or have had episodes of homelessness over the course of a few years are considered long-term homeless.

Working homeless

Rents at Conifer Estates are based on income. Tim Flathers, executive director of Headwaters Regional Development Commission, said a common misconception is that homeless people don’t have jobs. If a person doesn’t have an income, case managers at Conifer Estates will work with people to find employment.

“We like to see them working in two months,” said Sandy Kingbird, case manager with Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Housing. Case managers also assist with getting residents into drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs and obtaining drivers licenses and birth certificates.

Fineday said living at Conifer Estates has been life changing. Since moving into the property, he has started a new job as night auditor at the DoubleTree hotel.

“Look everywhere to find a way to not be homeless,” Fineday said in his advice to those seeking to get out of homelessness. “Apply for every open job, call them twice a day. Do what you have to do.”

However, with every situation there are successes and failures.

“Leech Lake has moved five families in and five families out,” Kingbird said.

Flathers said that is an example of how seriously the board is about helping people help themselves.

“We’ve had people go to jail and come back,” Kingbird said. “Just because somebody screws up, we don’t drop them.”

Kingbird said people who have been accepted into Conifer Estates really need to remember what it was like to be homeless. Once Conifer Estates was completed in July of 2012, units were filled with tenants within three months. After an application is submitted, potential residents meet with a group to evaluate if they would be a successful candidate.

“We don’t accept felons, but if you’re just coming out of jail, we’re willing to work with you,” said Chad Nelson, D.W. Jones property manager, and a member of the group who evaluate potential residents. At one time, Conifer Estates’ waiting list was as long as 200 people. There were 99 people waiting for units on Friday.

“In addition to a sense of ownership, it teaches tenants to own past mistakes,” Kurschner-Pineda said.

Nelson said when Conifer Estates first opened, there were allegations of vandalism in the surrounding area, which were unfounded.

“We’re coming together for the sake of homelessness and children,” Kurschner-Pineda said. “There are not many programs here that help families. It’s hard for our men to be the warriors they are...Poverty on the reservation is generational.”

Persistence pays off

At the Commissioner’s Circle of Excellence Award ceremonies, Flathers said Mary Tingerthal, Commissioner of Minnesota Housing, sat at the Conifer Estates table.

“That means Conifer is on her radar, Bemidji is on her radar,” he said.

Flathers said there may be an opportunity for a Phase II property in the future.

“It was really a collaborative project,” Flathers said of Conifer Estates’ beginning. The project originated as a tribal pursuit and grew from there.

Funding for Conifer Estates was provided by Minnesota Housing, Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, Federal Home Loan Bank-Des Moines, Minnesota Department of Human Services, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and the city of Bemidji.

“Really, you can’t accomplish something like this without collaboration,” said Hyacinth Stiffler with Bi-County Community Action Programs.

To contact the Beltrami County Housing and Redevelopment Authority, call (218) 444-4732.

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Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts and Beltrami county government for The Bemidji Pioneer. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Staff Reporter Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
(218) 333-9200 x343
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