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Wendy Reuer, Published September 09 2012

Area shelters turning away record numbers

FARGO – Officials at area homeless shelters say they often see less demand during the mild summer months. Not this year.

Instead, shelters in the Fargo-Moorhead area are steadily full and often forced to turn away those seeking shelter.

“This summer we are seeing unprecedented numbers. Never in our 105-year history have we seen it like this,” said Rob Swiers, assistant director of New Life Center in Fargo.

The New Life Center holds 70 emergency shelter beds and 33 long-term beds at its facility. The center turned away 47 men in May, 116 in June and 62 in July, Swiers said.

“We’ve never had to turn away this many people in the summer. We’ve seen our numbers consistently on the rise since 2008, and they’ve not slowed down,” Swiers said.

In 2008, an average of 76 men stayed at the shelter throughout the year. In 2009, the shelter averaged 87, and in 2010 the average climbed to 95 before reaching 98 men in 2011.

“We’re seeing so many new people every day case managers can’t keep up with all the new faces,” Swiers said.

A similar situation is occurring at Moorhead’s Churches United for the Homeless shelter.

“We are full every night. We have been doing overflow for women and families, with a cap on two families and five women,” John Roberts, director of shelter operations, said.

The shelter turned down 227 requests for beds in June and 213 in July, Roberts said.

August numbers at both shelters are not yet available.

Swiers said homeless numbers are not necessarily declining in summer months. People are still in the community without a place to call home, but they find shelter outside or in vehicles – something they can’t do in the cold winter months, he said.

Most attribute the growing problem of homelessness to the state of North Dakota’s growing economy.

“There are several factors, but they virtually all are connected to North Dakota’s economic and job situation,” said Laurie Baker, executive director of Fargo-Moorhead Coalition for Homeless Persons.

Baker said people from across the country are coming in to the state looking for work. She estimates about 40 percent of the men he sees are from out of state.

At the same time, the housing crisis in western North Dakota is forcing some out of their homes and into the shelters in the east, Baker said.

Last year, metro shelters joined forces with area churches to provide overnight shelter throughout the winter from January to April.

This year, Baker and Swiers said the partnership is planned to continue, starting in December and possibly with more churches signing on.

Last Monday, Baker approached Cass County to request $3,000 in grant money. It is the first time the coalition asked the county, but the city of Fargo has awarded the group $6,000 in recent years, and the coalition plans to approach other metro cities with similar requests.

Baker said simply adding more shelters cannot address the underlying factors that contribute to chronic homelessness.

The coalition missed the Aug. 1 deadline for county grant applications, but commissioners unanimously approved waiving the deadline for Baker’s request, which will be considered in the coming weeks.

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Forum reporter Ryan Johnson contributed to this report.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530