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New homeless shelter before winter’s end? Nameless group intends on creating one

BEMIDJI — Andy Reed, Butch Ryan, Shelly Whitefeather, Melvin Kingbird, Lawrence Goggleye. You know their names from a homeless series published by the Pioneer earlier this year, but what of the others who remain faceless, nameless, homeless?

Ryan and Reed did not see the first snowfall this year. Ryan drown in Lake Bemidji on June 21. Reed was struck and killed by a car on Sept. 22. Prior to their demise, three other homeless people have died tragically in Bemidji in the past seven years.

A nameless group has banded together in recent weeks to find a temporary solution to what has proven to be a perpetual problem in Bemidji. The group doesn’t have a leader, but they do have a plan: to quickly put together a daytime drop-in center for homeless people this winter.

"Peoples Church takes in a wide range of people at night," said Carol Priest, former executive director for the Red Lake Homeless Shelter and part of the new group. "Between Peoples Church and Servants of Shelter, they mostly handle the nighttime needs. Trying to open another nighttime shelter right now would be extremely difficult."

Priest said even a drop-in daytime center will be a challenge in terms of space, money and staffing.

Kirk Karstens described the group as a grassroots task force that is trying to address recent homeless concerns — the deaths. While a timeline hasn’t yet been established, the group without a name is determined to take action, to find a way to stop more people from dying this winter. A meeting will be held at 2 p.m. Monday at People’s Church at Ninth Street NE and America Avenue to discuss the next steps. The meeting is open to all who want to help relieve the homeless population.

"This is a group of people representing non-profit agencies, churches and government agencies in the community who want to find some short-term safety for individuals and families who are homeless. To help people get through this winter and also to connect them with services that may help them more long-term," Priest said.

City Councilman Reed Olson’s district, Ward 4, is where much of the homeless population "lives." Olson joined the group as a concerned citizen, not in an official capacity. He said the current situation in which homeless people are frequently transported to the emergency room or jail is an expensive and inefficient way to deal with the homeless.

"We’re not saving souls here," Olson said. "We’re taking small steps."

Where are they now?

Presently, there are a handful of shelters available to help homeless people in the area. All but one require a person to be sober and drug free. Servants of Shelter requires a background check, Priest said, and Village of Hope is for families only. The homeless shelter in Red Lake is more than 30 miles away.

Oftentimes, homeless people turn to alcohol to temporarily alleviate the stressors they face every day, which is problematic when seeking shelter. Peoples Church, part of the group, is the only refuge for people who don’t qualify for the other shelters.

"It’s extremely difficult to find a space for an intoxicated male without kids," said Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin. He added that although the city has some shelter options, it’s not as many as he’d like.

People must leave their alcohol bottles outside before entering Peoples Church for the night. Priest said it is not a violent place as some assume. She has attended Peoples Church and said the church unrightfully gets a bad reputation.

"People have a certain perception of Peoples Church because they allow people to come there who are intoxicated," Priest said. "But there are families with children who have stayed there. If I was homeless, I would not be afraid to stay there."

Priest said she is particularly concerned about the homeless population of chronic inebriates. In the past, people were kept off the streets due in part to income from Social Security, disability or SSI if they were diagnosed as having an alcohol or drug addiction. That diagnosis was disqualified from receiving benefits in the 1990s.

"These are real people with a lot to give and they have an illness," Priest said. "We don’t kick people with other illnesses to the curb."

Priest said the persistent homeless problem is a result of not enough affordable housing or employment in the area.

"It’s not that these people aren’t trying," Priest said. "There just aren’t enough resources to keep people out of homelessness."

Hope for a long-term solution

A Duluth based company, Center City Housing has started a needs assessment study for Bemidji. A representative of the company said while they are not ready to formally comment, they can say the study is in the data gathering stage and will explore what types of housing is needed in Bemidji.

CCH properties include low income housing, supportive housing and living facilities that allow for consumption of alcohol. The study is anticipated to be completed early next year.

Priest was part of an attempt to create sustainable housing in Bemidji between 1998 to 2000, but the effort was unsuccessful.

"There was frankly too much community opposition," Priest said.

Mastin is familiar with the Duluth models. Mastin said panhandling in Duluth has decreased since San Marco, a CCH apartment building that allows for alcohol, became available.

"It’s not a flophouse, it’s residential," Mastin said of San Marco.

Residences and shelters that allow for consumption of alcohol are commonly referred to as "wet houses" and raise concerns within communities. While Mastin doesn’t prefer the term, he said he would support a facility in Bemidji.

"It’s not illegal to be drunk," Mastin said. "A lot of homeless people don’t want to quit drinking."

Olson said there needs to be a place where people can go and keep their dignity.

"If you had a family member who was dying of cancer, wouldn’t you want them to be in hospice their last few days?" Olson asked. "Are we going to let them die in our lakes every year?"

Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts, tribal relations and social issues for The Bemidji Pioneer in Bemidji, Minnesota. 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 Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
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