'Safety net' -- Evergreen youth shelter struggles to keep programs, services available
Enough was enough. Wearing a turtle neck to cover the scratches and bruises on her neck and face, Irene Folstrom, then a fifth-grader living in Cass Lake, filled a paper bag with clothing and headed off to school, planning never to come back home.
But after teachers took notice of her unusual clothing choice for such a warm day and the bruises she could not cover up, a social worker took Folstrom aside and eventually gave her a ride to the Evergreen House, a youth shelter in Bemidji.
It was there Folstrom said she found a safe place to stay and counseling on how to overcome her struggles with having an alcoholic and physically abusive mother.
Folstrom is one of hundreds of people who, either by referral or on their own, arrive at the front steps of Evergreen Youth & Family Services youth shelter seeking solutions to family troubles, homelessness, hunger or recovery.
In Beltrami County, the issues are dramatic compared to other many parts of the state. The county has earned the distinction as one of the most economically depressed counties in Minnesota.
In 2009, 21 percent of Beltrami County residents lived below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census. This is twice as high as the state's 11 percent. Child poverty in Beltrami County is roughly at 30 percent, more than double the statewide figure of 14.1 percent.
Numbers like this paint a troubling picture for the county, fueling why the county and other groups and organizations persistently seek funding to keep up with the growing demand for public assistance.
Approximately 6,500 county residents receive some kind of public assistance from the county for health care, food aid, rent, gas, utilities and other payments. The county budget for administering the state and federal public assistance programs nudges $10 million, 36.5 percent of the county's entire budget.
The Bemidji Community Soup Kitchen, the Bemidji Community Food Shelf and the Ours to Serve House of Hospitality were all founded based on the area's need.
Bemidji is a regional center for health care, higher education and retail, and yet, jobs are scarce, especially jobs that pay a living wage. Homelessness abounds, as proven by the extensive waiting list at Village of Hope and the rotating overnight hospitality offered by area churches as Servants of Shelter.
Roughly 60 percent of K-12 students in Beltrami County qualify for free- or reduced-priced meals, nearly double the state average. The number of K-12 students in the Bemidji School District eligible to receive free- or reduced-priced meals has grown by 16.5 percent in the last decade.
Angie Lauderbaugh, a Bemidji School District employee who works to keep students' school life stable while their home life is in transition, said the number of students who qualify to receive her assistance is on the rise.
Last year the district served 290 "homeless" students, or students in transition. This year, in the middle of the first quarter of the school year, Lauderbaugh said 100 students have already sought help. She expects if the current trend continues, she could potentially have 400 youth and families needing assistance this year.
When needed, Lauderbaugh refers some students and their families to outside resources, such as the county, Evergreen, North Homes Children and Family Services and the Upper Mississippi Mental Health Center.
Lauderbaugh said one of the major factors for the rise in numbers may be weakened economy. She also said one common barrier to overcoming poverty is transportation.
More available public transportation in Bemidji and surrounding area would allow more individuals a way to get to work and more families could attend events like family night at the Bemidji Middle School.
"I hear it every day," she said. "People don't have a job because they don't have a car. They don't have a car because they don't have a job. They may be living out of town where transit is not an option."
Typically a rise in child poverty rates goes hand-in-hand with the number of students who transfer schools mid-year.
The student mobility rate in Beltrami County was at 22 percent in 2009, higher than 14.5 percent statewide average. In the Bemidji School District, however, Lauderbaugh said while the percentage is still high, 20 percent, it has gone down slightly from the previous year.
"That's good," Lauderbaugh said. "That means our programs are working."
The rate of homelessness per 10,000 residents living in northwest Minnesota in 2009 was 23.8 percent, compared to a state percentage of 18.3 percent.
Evergreen serves a high percentage of minority youth and has a track record of serving high risk, hard-to-reach youth and parents.
The economics of the service area is a major factor why Evergreen is launching a capital funds campaign this week, about a month after losing a $100,000-per-year federal grant it had counted on for the past three decades. The nonprofit organization hopes to find funding to fill 20 percent of the shelter's budget so it can continue to work with the high number of youth and families.
Evergreen, the only free, early intervention crisis shelter for youth in the region, serves about 300 homeless, runaway and street-dependent youth each year at the shelter.
"What we want is for our doors to always be open to community youth and families who need those early intervention stays," said Becky Schueller, Evergreen's executive director. "We don't want to quit being a runaway homeless shelter. We don't want to be strictly child protection. We want to stay open to those early intervention stays where we know we can get maximum results in terms of keeping kids and parents together.
"We're kind of the first line of defense - that safety net," added Gary Russell, Evergreen's program director.
Folstrom said while her mother eventually chose not to use the assistance she had been offered, Folstrom is grateful her mother was given the option to try to improve family life.
She recalled as a 10-year-old, on the third day of her stay at the Evergreen shelter, her aunt and uncle brought her mother in and together as a family, along with Evergreen staff, a counseling session was held to talk about the issues.
Today Folstrom has a degree from Stanford University and a law degree from Cornell University. She is a fulltime mother to two boys who attend school in Bemidji.
She has faced troubling obstacles later in life, but said she was able to get through because of something she learned at the Evergreen youth shelter.
"As a young child, I learned it's OK to ask for help," she said. "I learned there are people out there to help you when you are in crisis. That essentially is what saved my life and my family."