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Homelessness persists in Bemidji area

A 10-year-old boy was getting dressed for school when he looked at his mom and started to cry, "I miss my bedroom." The boy, his two younger sisters, and their mom, Michelle, have been sleeping at various churches for five weeks through the Serva...

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Justin Fender relaxes with a book while waiting for a meal hosted at Evangelical Covenant Church for the area homeless on Thursday evening. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

A 10-year-old boy was getting dressed for school when he looked at his mom and started to cry, "I miss my bedroom."

The boy, his two younger sisters, and their mom, Michelle, have been sleeping at various churches for five weeks through the Servants of Shelter program.

They came to Bemidji in mid-December from another state to be close to family and friends following a string of deaths. Michelle has qualified for Section 8 housing but has struggled to find a place that can house the four of them.

"I'm just happy to have a place to stay," Michelle said of SOS, "that my kids have a spot on the floor, that we're warm."

She is not alone.

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The Bemidji area has struggled with homelessness, and local activists and volunteers are saying that the problem isn't getting better.

"It's growing," said John Szurpicki, who serves on the steering committee for SOS, the church-based volunteer program that provides free shelter to the homeless during the winter months.

Wilder Research every three years examines homelessness in Minnesota. In its last report, released in 2009, Wilder reported of Minnesota's 9,654 homeless people, 393 were located in 12 northwest counties.

Audrey Thayer, the coordinator of the Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project (ACLU-MN), said she believes the number of homeless in the Bemidji area alone vacillates between 250 and 350.

In 2011, Churches United, a church-based program, assisted 1,632 clients in emergency situations, providing vouchers for gas, groceries and utilities.

Sarah Einerson, the executive director, said she doesn't believe the average Bemidji resident is aware of the number of the people who need help.

"They don't want to see it," she said. "They choose not to see it."

Sandy Hennum, the executive director of Village of Hope, the homeless shelter that today marks its first anniversary, agreed.

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"I still hear from people that there are no homeless here," she said. "I actually used to be one of them."

Hennum said she wanted to show her children, who take two-week mission trips each year, that help is needed all year long and in local communities.

So the family began volunteering with SOS.

"I was just ashamed and astounded at what I saw," Hennum said.

That was more than two years ago. In May, Hennum took over as executive director of Village of Hope.

Village of Hope can house up to 28 people in six family units. It replaced House of Hospitality, which housed six people at a time.

Still, the Village of Hope is always at capacity, except for the 6-12 hours that it takes to clean and turn over a unit. The waiting list includes 6-10 families at any time.

"We're about six times too small," Hennum said.

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'Where do they go?'

While Village of Hope will admit families and SOS will house sober individuals, there is a segment of the population that has very few options.

"I look at society, and on one hand, we have many Christian people who believe in their work and the love of God," Thayer said. "The love of God is that you don't pass judgment, you don't help out, you help up.

"But you don't always see that with the mentally ill and chronic alcoholics. We tend to shut that out."

The People's Church is the lone option for alcoholics, drug abusers and the mentally ill who are seeking shelter.

"We know a lot of people that are very vulnerable, felons, who have used up their families and their families don't want to see them," said Bob Kelly, the pastor of People's Church. "All the support that you like to see for people in those situations, they don't have that."

The People's Church this winter has been housing about 15 people a night, Kelly said, many of whom struggle with substance abuse.

"We're reserved people," Thayer said. "We don't like to talk about these things."

As People's Church has served as a makeshift homeless shelter, it has before run into opposition from governmental officials. The Greater Bemidji Joint Planning Board in 2009 denied a conditional use permit and four variances to People's Church for an expansion to allow better facilities to feed and shelter homeless people.

"Once again People's Church ends up being the ugly stepchild of Bemidji," said Thayer, noting that of course there have been alcoholics and drug abusers at the church. "There is no other place for them. Where do they go?"

They used to be able to stay overnight in the Law Enforcement Center lobby, but that was halted last year.

Janitors were cleaning up urine and puke in the mornings and it was becoming too difficult to conduct daily business, said Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp.

"It's a problem," he said of the homeless situation. "It's one of those things that need to be addressed."

'Get beyond the judgment'

Programs like SOS provide nighttime housing, but many homeless people don't have options during the day.

"It gets really heartbreaking when you see kids coming in and they're sick," said Szurpicki, the SOS steering committee member. "They're beat down from being outside all day."

For Michelle, whose full name the Pioneer did not print because of her current situation, her two older kids are in school during the day while her younger one is in daycare. Herself, she tries to take online college courses during the day, but a medical condition makes computer work difficult and she struggles to find wireless Internet access. She has been denied twice for disability.

But there are others who have nowhere to go.

Mike Bakke, the chief deputy with the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office, said the homeless situation can be a public safety concern. Those with substance abuse issues have frozen to death and gotten hit by trains.

"We need to get beyond the judgment and address the situation," he said.

In December 2010, he said, there were people sleeping in the LEC lobby 26 of 31 nights.

Bakke is on a Blandin Leadership Team that is examining the issue and coming up with potential options.

Activists often encounter those who argue that if the homeless can't get shelter and need it, they should "just sober up, quit drinking."

"People don't realize that some people can't," Thayer said, "and the mentally ill cannot just become healthy all of the sudden."

Kelly said he has seen firsthand the compassion people have for mentally-handicapped children.

"If we could only have as much compassion for the mentally ill as we do the mentally handicapped," he said.

Bakke, who is joined on the leadership team by Mike Bredon, Jordan Hickman and Chinwuba Okafor, said the city lacks a drop-in center or a shelter at which people can come no matter their physical state.

"One of the things we're missing in terms of serving people is having a basic facility to service people with chronic alcoholism and drug problems," he said.

A place where they can go, get out of the cold and off the streets.

"I would think that's a tremendous idea, to give them a safe place to go," said Mike Mastin, the Bemidji police chief.

The idea is still in the early stages. The leadership team is now organizing site visits to other communities with similar facilities.

"We can do something," Bakke said.

'You are a person'

Kelly said that when he is faced with an individual with whom he finds it difficult to empathize, he reminds himself that that person was once a baby.

"Someone very much cared about this child, loved it, touched its face. That's the same person," he said.

A similar message is advanced at Village of Hope.

"We tell them, 'Being homeless is not what you are, it's a situation,'" Hennum said. "You are a person, a person who happens to be homeless."

Residents of Village of Hope can remain in the shelter for up to 30 days, undergoing a program managed by BiCAP. Most of them do stay for the whole month, Hennum said, because some families need that time to address barriers such as unemployment, credit and past jail time.

"There are no do-overs in life," she said. "There certainly are second chances ... but the decisions you make stay with you."

Forty-two percent of the families that left Village of Hope have found permanent housing, she said.

There are a few who are not ready to commit to change, but the vast majority have not moved toward permanence because of the lack of affordable housing in the area, Hennum said.

There is a 20-unit transitional housing project under construction that is expected to be open in July north of BiCAP.

Tim Flathers, community development director with the Headwaters Regional Development Commission, said the project, under construction by Kraus-Anderson, will begin recruiting tenants in March.

There will be 20 units available for 20 families, including 10 three-bedrooms, five two-bedrooms and five one-bedrooms. Sixteen units are permanent housing, three are for up to two-year stays for those in transition from homelessness and one is for an onsite caretaker.

'We empower them'

A woman last week came to Churches United needing money to get out of town, to escape an abusive relationship. A family might be faced with the difficult choice of paying rent or buying food so they come in seeking assistance with groceries.

Churches United has a modest budget of $50,000 a year. Most vouchers given out are for $10-$15 for gas and groceries.

If an individual becomes a repeat client, Einerson said she or a volunteer will sit with him and go over his budget.

"We tell them, 'Maybe you should cut cable if you can't afford food,'" she said. "We can't be part of their monthly budget ... we empower them, not just give them what they need."

In 10 years, the nonprofit has expanded from an office at St. Philip's Church to a space at Mt. Zion Church that offers not only emergency vouchers, but clothing, bedding, personal care items and more. If Churches United also could secure a nearby storage unit, it would try to meet emergency furniture needs as well.

"We try to make them feel better by the time they leave," Einerson said.

Her goal for the future, she said, is to grow into a model similar to that of Churches United for the Homeless, an organization in Moorhead and Fargo, N.D., that hosts a homeless shelter and food pantry and serves three meals a day throughout the week.

"Ten years is quite the anniversary," Einerson said. "But just look at where we could be in another 10 years."

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