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Helmut Schmidt, Published May 05 2010

Homeless numbers on the rise in metro area

Kelvin Pederson and Bruce Wang can tell you a thing or two about homelessness.

Pederson, 55, hasn’t had a place of his own for a year. Wang hasn’t had a true home for six years by his reckoning.

The two residents at Moorhead’s Churches United for the Homeless said a loss of cheap housing, transportation and lack of credit are among the biggest issues that keep people homeless in the Fargo-Moorhead metro area.

“I can starve to death and have a roof over my head,” Pederson said.

“Or eat and be homeless,” said Wang, finishing the thought.

Both have noticed an increase in the number of homeless people in the area.

“Every day there’s people looking for beds,” Pederson said.

A survey released Tuesday of North Dakota homelessness – which included Moorhead – backs that up, showing double-digit percentage increases in homelessness the past two years.

The “Report on Homelessness in North Dakota” found 1,126 homeless on the January day it was taken. That’s up from 987 in 2009 and 836 in 2008, according to Michael Carbone, director of the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People.

The coalition estimates 7,100 North Dakotans will be homeless this year. More than a fourth of them are children with an average age of 6, the survey reports.

Homelessness increased 13 percent from January 2009 to January of this year, giving the area its highest reported number since the survey was started, Carbone said.

“It’s across the board. I think we’re seeing perhaps a disappointing increase in working families,” Carbone said.

Carbone said the strength of the North Dakota economy has pushed rents up, creating “an affordability gap” for the working poor.

Still, the root causes of homelessness in the region remain the same, Carbone said. They are mental illness, chemical dependency and lack of education or job training.

The metro area’s five homeless shelters are consistently at or near capacity.

Durk Thompson, executive director of Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead, said his shelter averages 63 of its 65 licensed beds filled nightly.

“I had a family check in yesterday that had never been homeless before. Both parents are working. Their landlord had an apartment that (he) had to fix,” Thompson said. “They’re here while they’re looking for another apartment. People can find themselves homeless real quick.”

Nearly three-fourths of the people at the shelter said they had mental health issues, Thompson said. The economy doesn’t help, either.

At the Dorothy Day House in Moorhead, Interim Director Brandee Drinken said staff are receiving more calls from men seeking shelter at the 10-bed facility.

“We’re usually always full. If we have a bed open, it fills up within an hour or two hours,” Drinken said.

The other metro shelters are in Fargo. They are the YWCA shelter for women and children, the New Life Center in Fargo for men, and the Gladys Ray Shelter, which takes in people with chronic substance abuse issues.

The point-in-time survey found that 799 of the homeless on any given day live in shelters, transitional housing, or on the streets, in abandoned buildings or Dumpsters, the report said.

The other 327 live in unsustainable situations, such as doubled up with friends or relatives, or at hotels when money is available, the report said.

Thompson said the opening of the 42-apartment Cooper House for the chronically homeless in Fargo and the 24-apartment Gateway Gardens in Moorhead will help.

In the meantime, Pederson and Wang are closer to finding homes.

Wang is waiting for Gateway Gardens to be finished. His health issues, both mental and physical, keep him from working, he said. And a felony conviction several years back makes it tough to rent an apartment.

Pederson is looking for work. He has a voucher that will pay $521 a month toward an apartment so that he can restart his life.

“It’s going to fit me perfectly,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583