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Erik Burgess, Published December 15 2012

Area churches make room for homeless

FARGO - The neon blue backpack is likely meant for a small child, but it contains just a few remnants of the life Sherrie Dillon once had.

The 58-year-old arrived in Moorhead in early December after losing her job and being evicted from her Twin Cities area home of nine years. An Air Force veteran and self-described hard worker, Dillon is now homeless for the first time.

“I don’t know what other people feel like, but I know what this feels like to me, and it’s pretty horrible,” Dillon said, wiping tears from her face.

“It’s kind of scary,” she said, sobbing. “As a matter of fact, I’m frightened.”

Since moving to Moorhead, Dillon spends nights in area churches as a part of the Church Sheltering Project put on by a number of local homeless groups, shelters and churches, including the FM Coalition for Homeless Persons.

The overflow program – which is in its second year – demonstrates how severe the problem has become in the metro area, where there are from 700 to 1,000 homeless people, said Laurie Baker, executive director of the coalition. The shelters in the metro region only have beds for a few more than 300 people.

Officials have seen the number of homeless explode this year as vacancy rates in area rental units drops, Baker said.

For example, Churches United for the Homeless, a Moorhead shelter, provided 102,540 meals through November this year, almost double the 62,612 in the same period in 2011. In the same time span, they put 1,400 people in overflow beds last year. This year, the shelter’s overflow count through November has shot up to 3,018.

“(Homelessness) is trending upward, and the best proof of that is the fact that all the shelters have been full continuously for over 18 months at this point, and that’s never happened,” she said.

Overflow a ‘Band-Aid’

Dillon came to Fargo-Moorhead in need. She had worked day labor jobs and stayed with a friend for more than a year after losing her job in Brooklyn Park, Minn., in October 2011.

“I tried to start working for myself, and I just started sinking,” Dillon said. “So, here I am. A friend of mine told me there’s better opportunities up here.”

Digging through paperwork needed to apply for veterans benefits and recover her ID, which she said was recently stolen in Minneapolis, Dillon now calls a twin-sized air mattress in an upstairs classroom at Fargo’s First United Methodist Church her home.

The church is one of 13 taking part in a four-month campaign to alleviate the bloated shelters and offer a refuge during winter nights. Last year, the sheltering project served 1,418 people.

First United Methodist will act as a night shelter for up to 25 people for two back-to-back weeks this month, says Yvonne Smith, assistant to the senior pastor at the church. Other churches will take the load for one week at a time through March 31.

Those seeking shelter must be registered through Churches United or Fargo’s New Life Center before coming to a church. They are then bused over via a YWCA van at about 9 p.m. each night. The next morning, they must leave the church by 7 a.m.

The program is run almost entirely through volunteer hours and donations of everything from food to hygiene products and clean sheets.

“It’s amazing what our congregation has done as far as stepping up to the plate,” Smith said.

When their two weeks is up, 87 volunteers from Smith’s church will have given their time to the cause.

The overflow program at churches began last winter, when area shelters decided they didn’t want to turn anyone away during the freezing nights.

Those in overflow typically get a sleeping mat and a piece of floor in a common space. They may be off the streets, but it’s far from ideal.

Services like laundry or a daily shower can’t be promised to those in overflow, and they also aren’t guaranteed the case management services critical in helping them escape the rut of homelessness, said Jane Alexander, executive director of Churches United. Shelter employees try to select the people least in need of services and attention to house in churches.

“Our regular staff is pretty maxed out with just our regular people in our 65 shelter beds,” Alexander said. “(Overflow) is really a promise that they’re not going to freeze and they can get some sleep.”

The “emergency beds” are meant to be for exactly that.

“This is not a solution to the social issue of homelessness in Fargo-Moorhead. This is a Band-Aid,” Baker said.

Seeking long-term fix

The problems that lead to homelessness are varied and systemic, Baker says. Poverty, substance abuse, and mental or physical ailments – issues difficult to address – are common root concerns.

In Fargo-Moorhead, finding a long-term fix for the growing homeless population is a point of emphasis. If nothing changes, Smith estimates her church will be providing shelter for at least two more winters.

“We want permanent housing. That’s what we want for every person that’s in every emergency shelter,” Baker said. “Can we do that by next winter? Probably not. But that’s not a reason not to try.”

The Coalition for Homeless Persons is advocating for more long-range solutions, such as working out deals with landlords who both Alexander and Baker say are often too strict when it comes to background checks on renters.

Defaulted debt, substance abuse and even the most minor criminal history prevent the homeless from getting housing, Alexander said, and many homeless have experienced at least one of these issues.

“They’ve had to make due however they’ve had to make due, which probably includes not paying some bills, and that makes it very hard for them to rent,” she said.

To make matters harder, Fargo-Moorhead only has a 2.3 percent rental vacancy rate, and the average efficiency apartment here costs $372 a month.

“That is more than 100 percent of their monthly income,” Baker said.

But property managers have largely been absent from conversations about the area’s homeless, Baker said, and she believes they hold the key.

“If we could convince landlords to take a chance with one unit in every low-to-mid-end building in town, we would solve the homeless issue,” she said.

A personal connection

There’s more to the overflow shelter program than just providing a temporary roof. It also puts a face to homelessness, Smith says, and confronts volunteers directly with the issue.

“At one time, I’d look at them, and I’d think that’s probably somebody down on their luck, drinking too much, on drugs,” Smith said. “But when you sit and talk with them, and you learn their stories, you realize, you know what, that’s not always the case.”

On a blustery night last week, Smith sat down in her church common area to chat with one such person. JoAnn Steman has been living hand-to-mouth in Moorhead for a year, but that’s not to say her life before that was easy.

Steman was born with two holes in her heart and given a very low chance of survival. She’s had three heart surgeries, including one right after her birth. Last year, while living and caring for her brother, who she said was out of work after falling 35 feet from an oil rig, she contracted meningitis and pneumonia from black mold.

Reflecting on her life, Steman bounced between hopeful optimism – the joy of being reunited in 2010 with her son whom she gave up for adoption – to sheer hopelessness.

“I had a 0.01 percent chance of living, and I lived … and now this is how my life has turned out?” she said. “I’ve had cancer. I’ve lost my kids. I hate my life, but yet I have this need to want to keep going. Why?”

Through it all, Steman said three things give her hope – her mother, her children and her faith. She believes her life mission is to help those who are even less fortunate.

“Everybody touches somebody in some way, no matter how short of time or how long of time they have on this earth,” she said. “Everything is for a reason.”

The hopeful outlook seems to be contagious in the church Steman calls home, for now. She’s applied for affordable housing programs in Casselton and Kindred.

Call it luck, hard work or a little bit of both, Dillon took that same optimism to a job interview on Wednesday at a Moorhead hardware store. She was hired immediately.

“It’ll get better, I believe that in my heart,” she said. “With the people around here, I know it’ll get better.”

Help wanted

Volunteers are still needed at local churches, especially for the week of Christmas. Training is provided. To sign up, go to www.fmhomeless.org

and click on the “Church Sheltering Project 2012-2013” link, or call 211.

Homelessness by the numbers

Moorhead’s Churches United homeless shelter has seen dramatic increases in the number of people they are serving this year compared to last year. All numbers are through November of each year.

Meals served:

2011: 62,612

2012: 102,540

Residents staying

in shelter beds:

2011: 19,978

2012: 21,650

Residents staying

in overflow beds:

2011: 1,400

2012: 3,018

Food pantry pounds distributed:

2011: 35,370

2012: 38,337

Source: Churches United

for the Homeless

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518

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