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Village of Hope: New shelter to open Friday

Village of Hope Director Rebecca Hoffman poses in the dining room of the new shelter located at 525 Mississippi Ave. N.W. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

In 1994, Rebecca Hoffman took her first job out of college as director for the Ours to Serve House of Hospitality, the homeless shelter at 416 Irvine Ave. N.W. Her salary was $6,000 per year.

Hoffman and her family moved to Wisconsin in 1997. They returned to Bemidji in November 2006, and Hoffman took on the challenge for chairing the House of Hospitality committee to develop a new shelter facility.

The project has taken more than five years, but this week, Hoffman will show the community the results of her and the committee's accomplishment.

The staff will hold a grand opening from 4-7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 3, in the new Village of Hope shelter on the 500 block of Mississippi Avenue Northwest. The ribbon cutting will be at 4:30 p.m., and the facility will open at 8 a.m. Friday, Feb. 4.

"This is a gift - this is a contribution to the Bemidji community," Hoffman said. "We wanted a building everyone would be proud to have next to them."

The new shelter can accommodate 28 people in six family units complete with private bathrooms and private telephone lines.

Hoffman said the building is designed to minimize common space so people who need to live at Village of Hope will be more like tenants at a lodge rather than guests in a shelter.

"When we were designing this facility, I wanted this to be a place to embrace family," Hoffman said. "When they come to the door, I wanted it to say, 'You're home.'"

In the dining room, which resembles a small restaurant seating area, each family will have a separate table that will be their private space for the duration of their stay. Families can stay for up to one month, with an extension possibility if they have a landlord's agreement for them to move into permanent housing.

Four staff apartments upstairs will allow for 24-hour service in case of emergencies. Live-in staff will trade their on-call availability for 11 days each per month for rent-free accommodations.

This arrangement means the director doesn't have to rush to the shelter at midnight if someone fails to show up for his or her shift. It also saves $30,000 per year in staff wages.

Hoffman said the shelter is for families only, but the definition of "family" is broad. A family could be a single pregnant woman or a couple expecting a baby; it could be a single mother or father or couple with children; it could be a grandparent with grandchildren or aunts or uncles caring for nieces and nephews; and it could be an extended family of several generations.

Hoffman cited statistics showing Beltrami County's need for the shelter. The area is in a needy part of Minnesota, with 22 percent of people living below the poverty line as compared to 11 percent statewide. She said almost 22 percent of children have no father listed on their birth certificates.

In 2009, House of Hospitality served 128 people and turned away 739 for lack of accommodations.

"Our homeless population is characterized by these young families with no safety net," Hoffman said.

Village of Hope meets state standards for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, construction. For example, there are clerestory windows and warm brick walls for auxiliary heating, lights and faucets are on timers and there are plans for solar panels to heat water.

At this point, Hoffman said, the shelter board has not decided what to do with the old House of Hospitality, but Hoffman noted that the location is a prime piece of property.

Village of Hope will not replace the need for the Servants of Shelter, the project in which churches house and feed singles and families during the fall, winter and spring months.

"We know the families we serve have come out of trauma after trauma," she said. "You see people at their worst moments."

But the new facility will move Bemidji ahead in caring for people who have led difficult lives and need housing, she said.

"We knew we were going to have an impact on the community, and we wanted it to be a positive one," Hoffman concluded.