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Area organizations team up to combat homelessness

Angie Keprios, right, project coordinator for Northern Dental Access Center, talks on Tuesday about community awareness of homelessness in Bemidji during a roundtable discussion at the Northwest Minnesota Foundation. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI—It's already been a long winter for those who have to sleep under the stars.

With the cold weather creeping in and local advocacy organizations straining to keep up with demand, a group of community leaders has come together to try to supplement and coordinate their independent efforts.

That group, Community Response to Homelessness, met Tuesday at the Northwest Minnesota Foundation during the most recent of several meetings to figure out ways to combat homelessness. And they're attacking the issue from several different angles.

"The discussion that's going on now is a rapid response to what is really a crisis here in the Bemidji community," said Nancy Vyskocil, NMF president and CEO.

While the foundation has recently created programs to focus on both affordable housing and issues facing children and families, Tuesday's meeting focused on more immediate issues. The group broke into three, roundtable discussions that focused on separate initiatives: increasing community awareness, supporting existing programs and creating a daytime center.

During those discussions, representatives from organizations such as Bi-Cap, Beltrami County, NMF, and Churches United, among others, focused on a number of activities to get the impoverished community into more stable housing situations.

For example, in one group, they tackled subjects such as using a risk mitigation fund to help encourage landlords to accept higher-risk tenants. Another idea was to get the personal stories out to the broader public as part of a marketing campaign. In another group, they discussed providing training to volunteers and workers at organizations such as The Wolfe, an overnight homeless shelter.

In yet another, they discussed finding a facility to act as a day center to supplement existing options like the People's Church.

Vyskocil said the discussion group came together to confront both the ongoing need as well as the strained resources, as well as an early winter: The snow began falling in early October, followed by recent below zero weather. The church-based Servants of Shelter, which hosts the homeless in a rotation of church buildings, has seen a decrease of volunteers and will not open until December. Village of Hope, which assists the homeless find housing, has had to turn away recent applicants.

"We're still seeing significant numbers of homeless," Vyskocil said. "We cannot afford to go into this winter as unprepared as we really are without having the additional resources we need, because we'll have deaths."

Although only the most recent in a series of ongoing discussions, Tuesday's meeting fell amid National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. NMF has compiled a list of area organizations where the public can either volunteer or donate. The list can be found at www.nwmf.org/hhweek18.

"We're really trying to change the face of homelessness and show people that it's not always the person you see literally on the street," said Kari Cooper, NMF communications specialist. "It might be a child who doesn't have a stable home."

Jordan Shearer

Jordan Shearer covers crime and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. A Rochester native and Bemidji State grad, he previously spent several years in western Nebraska writing for the Keith County News. Follow him on Twitter @Jmanassa

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