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Kim Winnegge, Published December 18 2008

Homeless shelters trying to make room as demand increases

As the weather out there turns frightful, most residents are turning up their thermostats.

But for Les Bachmeier, that is not an option.

“I’ll survive,” Bachmeier, a homeless veteran, said Wednesday at Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead, 1901 1st Ave. N. “I’ve been a survivor most of my life.”

Bachmeier said a “run of bad luck” is the reason he wound up on the street and bouncing from shelter to shelter in Fargo-Moorhead since 2000.

He feels grateful to be in a warm place, especially during last weekend’s blizzard.

“(Churches United for the Homeless) really helped me out,” he said. “It gets a little lonely and sometimes overwhelming, though.”

Because of increased demand, Bachmeier is one of the lucky ones. Hundreds of homeless people are turned away each year at Churches United for the Homeless at 1901 1st Ave. N., Moorhead, said Executive Director Durk Thompson.

In 2007, the shelter turned away 613 men and 387 women, Thompson said.

Since October, the shelter has turned away 1,057 men and 724 women.

And homeless shelter demand is picking up with the recent cold snap.

“We were really busy leading up to the storm,” Thompson said. “Some days we can get all of them in, some days we can’t.”

Area shelters have similar ways of dealing with homeless who have to be turned away.

If the New Life Center in Fargo is full, it checks with other shelters in the area to see if they have space, said Executive Director Dan Danielson. If those shelters have space, a taxi is on hand to shuttle people to the warm indoors.

If there isn’t space available, shelters will put down cots or mattresses for standing-room-only guests. Cafeterias or recreational areas can also be opened.

Churches United recently received city approval to raise its occupancy from 58 to 65 beds to handle increased demand. The facility emptied storage areas to make room for more beds.

“Seven extra beds are going to help us every day,” Thompson said. “We’re hovering at that full capacity level every night.”

That’s also true at the New Life Center, 1902 3rd Ave. N.

“We really haven’t seen the extent of what this winter will bring as of yet,” Danielson said. “Space is at a premium.”

The New Life Center can house about 100 men and serves 180 or more meals each day.

“As the Fargo-Moorhead community has grown, so has the homeless population,” Danielson said.

“More people are living on the fringe and in marginal living circumstances,” he said, “and as economic situations go bad, we usually end up seeing those people in the shelter population.”

Sonja Ellner, executive director of the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality, said the Moorhead-based homeless shelter and pantry at 714 8th St. S. tries its hardest to keep a roof over people’s heads.

“We’re full, of course. We’re usually always full,” she said. “We have turned people down lately, but we try to make sure they have somewhere to go.”

Moorhead’s fire chief and police chief both supported the expansion at Churches United.

“Our entire metro area is in need of reassurance,” said Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger. “In this weather, we’re not going to leave somebody out there.”

The Gladys Ray Shelter at 1519 1st Ave. S. in Fargo – the only shelter in Fargo-Moorhead that accepts individuals who have been drinking – can serve 25 men and 10 women per night, Director Jan Eliassen said.

“We fight every time to make sure that everyone has shelter,” Eliassen said. “Our role in the community is a little bit different. If we didn’t have that role, we would be overwhelmed every day.”

“No one is going to let anyone freeze to death outside,” said former Fargo City Commissioner Linda Coates, who fought to help open the Gladys Ray Shelter. She is also a Churches United board member.

Coates pointed to two instances last winter when individuals died of exposure because they didn’t reach out to the homeless shelters for help.

The temperature was about 14 degrees below zero in Fargo on the morning of Jan. 13 when a newspaper carrier discovered Vernon Weigand’s body on the sidewalk in front of the bishop’s residence at St. Mary’s Cathedral on Broadway.

Weigand’s death was the second in the Fargo-Moorhead area in as many months involving someone who died outdoors after drinking.

Homer Childs, 52, was found dead the morning of Dec. 5 in a bus stop shelter outside the Moorhead Center Mall.

An autopsy determined that Childs died from hypothermia. His blood-alcohol level was 0.29 percent.

If Weigand and Childs had reached out for help, they might be alive today, Coates said.

“If someone comes to the door, they aren’t going to be turned away.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Kim Winnegge at (701) 241-5524