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Study looks at homelessness in northwest Minnesota

At any one time, 200 to 250 people seek shelter each night in northwest Minnesota -- about 80 are children and a third of homeless men are veterans.

"We don't see homelessness as you would in the metro area," says Wendy Thompson, a consultant with Northwest Minnesota Continuum of Care, a 12-county consortium that includes Beltrami County.

The consortium is recommending six strategies as part of a 10-year plan to end homelessness in northwest Minnesota, a plan recently endorsed by the Beltrami County Board.

Homelessness in northwest Minnesota isn't cardboard shelters in alleys, ever-present panhandlers on main streets or crowds of the needy outside emergency shelters, says the consortium's report, "Heading Home Northwest Minnesota."

"The homeless of rural areas such as ours are called the 'hidden homeless' -- they move from one unstable substandard or cost-burdened situation to another, hidden from the eyes of the wider community," states the report.

Thompson presented the report and asked for support of the consortium's recommendations from the County Board at its April 7 meeting, which was given as part of the board's consent agenda.

Homelessness does exist, Thompson said. In October 2006, local surveyors identified 198 homeless people in northwestern Minnesota during a 24-hour period. In January 2007, a 24-hour survey identified 266 homeless people in the region.

In 2006, more than 866 homeless people were turned away from northwestern Minnesota emergency shelters due to a lack of available beds. From July 2006 to June 2007, more than 1,000 people in northwestern Minnesota were identified as "long-term homeless."

The report shows that 462 homeless people were served at Ours to Serve House of Hospitality in Bemidji in 2006, but that it turned away 587 homeless people. The Red Lake Reservation homeless shelter served 210 homeless that year.

Main causes of homelessness in northwest Minnesota are poverty and shortage of affordable housing, Thompson said.

Eleven of the 12 counties in the region have a higher poverty rate than the state average, she said. About 30 percent of the jobs in Kittson, Roseau, Marshall, Pennington, Red Lake, Polk and Norman counties pay less than a living wage and 42 percent of the jobs in Beltrami, Clearwater, Hubbard, Lake of the Woods and Mahnomen counties pay less than a family supporting wage.

And Thompson said that thousands of low-income and extremely low-income northwest Minnesota households are paying more than 30 percent or some even more than 50 percent of their income on housing.

"For these households, any sudden setback -- an illness or an accident, an unexpected car repair, a job loss, or the loss of a spouse -- could cause the loss of their housing," she said.

A number of other factors may also affect homelessness, she said, such as mental health conditions, physical health conditions, chemical addiction, dual diagnoses, lack of education and job skills, prior institution placement, or poor credit and housing history.

Thompson said 38 percent of homeless people receive emergency room treatment and 35 percent of homeless report a chronic physical health problem such as high blood pressure, diabetes or heart problems.

"Fifty percent have mental health issues, from anxiety to schizophrenia," Thompson said.

Some systemic issues in rural Minnesota that can cause, complicate or prolong homelessness, she said, include lack of transportation, shortage of affordable and accessible child care, high cost of utilities in an extreme climate, substandard conditions of regional housing, shortage of emergency shelter and supportive housing and foreclosure trends.

There are a number of current programs to help homelessness, but resources aren't enough, Ann McGill, assistant director of operations at Bi-County Community Action Program, told commissioners.

U.S. Housing and Urban Development housing grants send about $1.2 million to six counties, she said. There is a Family Homeless Prevention and Assistance Program that offers transitional housing.

Another program, McGill said, the Emergency Food and Shelter Program funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, provides for first month rent and eviction prevention. The funds can also be used for mortgage foreclosure prevention and utility assistance.

FEMA is a resource of last resort.

The consortium's report, however, will help Bi-CAP seek new grants as the report shows a need for homelessness programs, McGill said. About $4 million is used in the region, and $1.5 million to Bi-CAP for Beltrami and Cass counties.

The consortium goals "are to end long-term homelessness and to prevent new homelessness," Thompson said.

The report lays out six strategies for attacking homelessness over 10 years:

-- Build community awareness about homelessness in northwest Minnesota.

-- Create additional emergency, supportive housing and affordable housing opportunities while preserving existing housing options.

-- Improve supportive service availability, coordination and results.

-- Provide effective, coordinated outreach to the homeless.

-- Improve discharge planning from jails, foster care, etc.

-- Improve data on regional homelessness.

It will mean investments in some areas, Thompson said, such as in prevention strategies, in paying back rent or utilities, assisting with transitional housing, supporting programs that keep kids in stable housing and in a Rapid Re-Housing program that quickly places homeless individuals in permanent housing.

"Strong partnerships will be needed to overcome systemic challenges such as transportation barriers, lack of federal funding for supportive services and other issues," states the report. "Working together across agencies, across county boundaries and across communities will help remove the obstacles posed by rural diseconomies of scale, diversity of needs and limited program resources."

On the Web:

The 87-page report, "Heading Home Northwest Minnesota" is available at: