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Nonprofit agencies filling area needs

Betty Olbekson, a client at the Bemidji Community Food Shelf, checks out the gleaner shelves in the nonprofit's waiting room. Anyone can select donated items from the front shelves without limit and can apply for an emergency box of groceries once a month. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron

Since the 1980s, three secular nonprofits have reached out to help people in poverty needing emergency services.

The Bemidji Community Food Shelf opened in 1982, Ours to Serve House of Hospitality began sheltering homeless people in 1985 and the Bemidji Community Soup Kitchen Inc. started serving meals in 1989.

Although the need for assistance to people out of work, laid low by illness or disability, unable to find living-wage jobs or down on their luck for whatever reasons has been pervasive in the Bemidji area community for decades, the call for services has burgeoned in recent years.

Food Shelf

"We just keep giving out food, but our numbers continue to grow," said Randy McKain, Food Shelf director. "There are more people in need."

This year, the Food Shelf extended allotments of boxes of short-term emergency supplies from five times a year to monthly distribution.

"It's a picture of Bemidji," said McKain, describing the clientele. "People with jobs, people without jobs, people with disabilities."

He said about half are younger than 17 and half are older. Last year, he said, by the end of June the Food Shelf served 2,584 families. This year, by June 10, 3,462 families came for their box of food, an increase of 878.

Nevertheless, even through the recent recession, donations continue to flow in. The March Food Share month was successful in raising $55,000 to purchase food from North Country Food Bank at about 14-17 cents per pound.

"More people are struggling to make enough money to pay their bills," McKain said. "Part of this could be the rising cost of gasoline, which, in turn, affects food prices at local grocery stores. We're busy from when the doors open."

There are days when, before the doors open a 10 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, that the line of people seeking food aid stretches down the block.

In addition to food bank shipments, fresh foods, such as milk and bread are purchased locally, and grocery stores donate salvaged food that is still useful. Much of this is put on the gleaning shelves at the front of the building with no limits on how much or how often people can access it.

The Food Shelf also receives venison donated by hunters, garden produce from home gardeners and potatoes, corn and onions from the community garden at Gary Vanyo's farm.

"I have to stretch my little Social Security check," said Betty Olbekson, 76, who describes herself as a disabled senior who moved from Bloomington, Minn., to Bemidji about four years ago to help her grandson with family issues.

She said she gleans salad makings, as well as ripe bananas for banana bread from the shelf, but can't take too much at once because she gets around with a walker and her subsidized rental is about a mile and a half from the Food Shelf.

Olbekson said she was a social services advocate in the Twin Cities before she retired.

"I never thought that once I raised my family and stabilized my life, I'd be dependent," she said. "It's definitely a big change. I am so thankful there are people who care enough to not only share their food but give of their time."

Much of the work is accomplished by volunteers such as C.J. Fisher, who volunteers her services and brings her daughter and granddaughter to help as well.

"I had four children in five years, and when my husband was on the road, I used the Food Shelf to supplement," she said. "This is my way of paying forward and paying back."

The Food Shelf has no income restrictions, but the people seeking help must show identification for all the adults in their households and proof of residence in Beltrami County.

Village of Hope

People who are homeless can't access the Food Shelf because they don't have a Beltrami County proof of address.

Village of Hope, the new shelter that opened in February, can accommodate homeless families, but there is always a waiting list. The shelter replaced Ours to Serve House of Hospitality, which provided shelter for six people at a time; Village of Hope can take in 28 people, who can stay for up to one month

"We're full - we're always full," said Sandy Hennum, who took over from Rebecca Hoffman as executive director May 16. "We have 15 families on our waiting list. We have to turn them away. That's hard to say."

Hennum, who was director of therapy and education at the WoodsEdge elderly complex, said she felt her calling to help homeless people through her church. Her family helped with Servants of Shelter, an experience that awoke her perception of the situation.

"I was one of those people who didn't know the impact of homelessness and what a problem it is here," she said.

She said she couldn't get that impression out of her mind, and when she learned that Hoffman was moving on, Hennum took the opportunity to direct the Village of Hope team.

"Our goal, obviously, is to end homelessness," she said, adding that she believes that goal is possible. "Homelessness is such a multifaceted problem that it's going to take multifaceted approaches."

Hennum said the shelter is supported by grants, private donations and some state financing, but in the down economy and with the state budget uncertain, she feels some frustration.

"We're starting to put contingency plans in," she said, referring to the state budget impasse.

In April, 52 families accessed Village of Hope, 31 of whom were children, 45 were American Indians, 16 were single parents, 31 in two-parent families and 21 in families of four to six members. Most of the guests - 42 of the 52 - were from Beltrami County, two were from Cass County, two were from Clearwater County and six from out of state.

Hennum said a quarter of Beltrami County children live in poverty, twice the state rate. Even the most determined people have a hard time improving their situation if they have no home, no transportation and no way to search for a job.

However, she said she impresses on guests that homelessness is not their identity; it's a situation.

"We promote self-worth and independence through the provision of temporary shelter and supportive services for families experiencing homelessness," Hennum said.

Soup Kitchen

Gloria Joy, who has served with the Soup Kitchen since the 1990s, said the nonprofit serves suppers at 5 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays at Mt. Zion Church in Nymore and Thursdays at Bemidji United Methodist Church using the churches' kitchens and dining rooms, but is unaffiliated with the churches.

Joy said the Soup Kitchen never serves soup.

According to Soup Kitchen records compiled by Sandy Church, the number of people who accessed the Soup Kitchen topped 3,000 January through April in each of the last three years.

From Jan. 1 to April 28 this year, the most recent figures available, the Soup Kitchen served 5,747 meals to 3,434 people. Of these, 1,218 were American Indian, 820 were older than 61 and 594 were children. In comparison to the same period in 2010, the Soup Kitchen served 5,308 meals to 3,738 people. Of these, 1,244 were Indian, 833 were older than 61 and 601 were children. In the same four-month period in 2009, the Soup Kitchen served 4,551 meals to 3,201 people. Of these 1,132 were Indian, 641 were older than 61 and 272 were children.