Regional program that fights homelessness receives state award

A multifaceted regional program to combine resources to fight long-term homelessness won a state award last month. The "Best Practices" award from the Minnesota Community Action Partnership cites one effort among many to tackle housing for the ho...

A multifaceted regional program to combine resources to fight long-term homelessness won a state award last month.

The "Best Practices" award from the Minnesota Community Action Partnership cites one effort among many to tackle housing for the homeless in the Bemidji area, another being a drive to build a new emergency homeless shelter.

Also, MCAP awarded the local Bi-County Community Action Program with a "Promising Practices" award for its Head Start Family Toybox Program, which provides mental health counseling to young children and their families.

"The work we do in housing, through the continuum of care, is across 12 counties, multiple jurisdictions and many different partners," John Pugleasa, director of the Beltrami County Service Collaborative, said Tuesday.

"The heart of this award is recognizing this group's ability to bridge those boundaries and access resources that are really providing some very needed support services for people who struggle with homelessness," he said.


The Northwest Minnesota Consortium includes six counties, four community action councils (including Bi-CAP), the three area American Indian reservations, and other people-serving agencies and county governments. Hubbard County serves as the grantee for the consortium and the MAHUBE community action council is the lead agency.

The consortium taps state Department of Human Services funding for support services for long-term homeless, or people or households that have been homeless for at least a year or who have had four episodes of homelessness in three years.

"That could be literally on the street or it could mean being doubled up, that they just don't have their own permanent residence, such as two and three families living together in one unit," said Anne McGill, Bi-CAP assistant director of operations who handles housing programs.

"These service dollars are critical because those are dollars that provide us the opportunity to provide services such as case management, support services that might be transportation assistance or child care assistance," she said. "It might be helping buy appropriate clothing for somebody to go to a job interview."

Getting the person to work is key, McGill said, so transportation assistance might include help with a car insurance payment, car repairs or buying gas.

"These are not strictly housing dollars that we're going to use primarily to pay rent or deposit," she said.

Bi-CAP has also accessed other funds, such as a voucher program for long-term homeless, "so we can take two pots of money and have them work parallel to each other to provide additional support to these families that are homeless," McGill said.

Each agency could have competed for money separately and not gain much, Pugleasa said, working together they were awarded grants the are only rivaled by those given the metro area. Of $10 million made available in state funds, the local group got $1.2 million.


The consortium identified 1,300 households in northwest Minnesota as long-term homeless, and 2,670 households were identified as "at significant risk" of long-term homelessness, McGill said.

"The majority of households are unable to achieve long-term housing stability and inevitably return to agencies, often at crisis situations, for repeat services," she said.

"We can take the housing dollars -- dollars we get for capital, dollars that we get for vouchers -- and you can put somebody in a unit and help them with that," says Pugleasa. "But generally the things that lead to somebody being homeless are a little more diverse than just not having a roof over their head."

Transportation help is important, he said. "We can put somebody in a unit, but if they don't have the ability to get to work, they're going to be back out on the street. If they have mental health issues that need to be addressed, or managing medication, or addiction issues, or domestic violence issues -- all are things that require some level of support."

Going through the consortium, funds for such support services can be accessed more easily, he said, especially since the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development narrowed the scope of its grants to primarily housing funds.

The program has been an overwhelming success, McGill said. Collectively, participating partners have successfully housed and provided support services to 573 households representing 1,299 beneficiaries over a 13-month period.

"Housing first" is the consortium's service strategy, she said. "'Housing first' focuses primarily on placing homeless families and individuals in housing as soon as possible as a stability measure and then providing sufficient support services to assist families to maximize housing stability," McGill said.

The "Best Practices" award is determined by a review team at the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development. They evaluate local programs and their success in achieving significant and measurable impact for strengthening low-income families.


Homeless shelter

The community has a dire need for more emergency homeless shelter space, and organizers of that effort hope to build a new facility west of the downtown area.

"As of Oct. 1, we've been serving families only," Rebecca Hoffman, director of the Ours to Serve House of Hospitality homeless shelter, told Beltrami County commissioners last month. "We are licensed for only six beds, and we have turned away so many young families."

Statistics for 2007 show the shelter housed 349 people, 101 of them children under age 12, Hoffman said. The totals include 131 men and 113 women. The average length of stay was two to five days, but 74 stayed for 21 or more days. Sixty-one stayed for one day. Of the total, 178 people were making their first visit to the shelter.

The vast majority, 239, are Beltrami County residents to begin with and 237 are American Indian, she said. Most of the people coming to the shelter list a lack of affordable housing or that they lost their housing.

During the first three months of being a family-only temporary shelter, 20 men, 27 women and 70 children were turned away due to a lack of shelter space, she said.

For 2007, the shelter turned away 703 people, including 94 families and 105 singles, mostly because of a lack of space.

"We want to locate a new shelter as close as possible to the county's facilities, as we don't want to duplicate services," Hoffman said. Best would be a site within walking distance of the County Public Health Service, the WorkForce Center and other programs.


Preliminary plans call for a two-story facility that would feature six units on one floor for a family setting, with a common kitchen and dining area. It would also provide staff space for a 24/7 staffing. A second floor would provide more bedrooms, and living room areas on each end. An active/passive solar design is also featured.

"We'd like the families to be as independent as possible in their units," Hoffman said. "We want to house people in much more humane conditions."

Hoffman estimates the cost of the facility at $600,000 to $800,000, but organizers are hoping to gain some funding through the Legislature this session and its capital bonding bill.

The bonding conference committee slated to consider funding this week, with the Senate bill including $30 million for permanent supportive housing and the House bill having the same plus $2 million for emergency shelter, transitional housing or additional supportive housing.

The Beltrami County Board on March 5 passed a resolution supporting legislative efforts to have the state sell $10 million in capital improvement bonds for publicly owned emergency shelters, temporary or transitional housing and for permanent rental housing for people who are long-term homeless.

It says that the House of Hospitality would qualify to apply for the funds "for the construction of a new 26-bed emergency shelter for the use of families with dependent children and pregnant women who lack a permanent residence in Beltrami County."

Pugleasa said the consortium also supports the shelter's quest for a new facility, saying it is but one piece of a complex array of services and programs to help homeless people find and keep housing.

Bi-CAP Family Toybox Program


Also awarded by the Minnesota Community Action Partnership was Bi-CAP's Head Start Family Toybox program, winning a "Promising Practices" award.

It is a multiple-family group therapy program piloted in 2006 that provides unique mental health services to children ages 3 to 5 and their parents, says Julie Johnson, Bi-CAP assistant director of operations with early childhood programs such as Head Start.

The award denotes the program's outstanding innovation in strengthening family systems to support low-income people, especially vulnerable populations.

Bi-CAP partners with Stellher Human Services of Bemidji, which provides the licensed mental health counselors for the 10-week program, Johnson said.

"The Family Toybox fills a gap in our community," Johnson said. "There really are not a lot of mental health services available for children in the 0-5 age range and their family. ... We're able to offer services to families where they can learn to work with their children on their social and emotional concerns."

Dealing with potential problems early "means that we're avoiding years of remediation later on when the children get into the school system," she said.

"Research is showing that when we can catch social and emotional issues with very young children early, sometimes those issues can be turned around and the children will present later just as any other child would," Johnson said.

The program served eight families the first year, with six completing. They second year saw nine families enrolled an seven complete the program, she said. Normally offered in April, this year's program is on hold as funding is being sought.


Bi-CAP is seeking funding this year from the Northwest Minnesota Foundation's Thrive Initiative for early childhood education.

"Eventually, we'd like to offer the services without depending on funding from outside sources," Johnson said. Partnering with Stellar Human Services allows the program to bill insurance companies as well, she said.

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