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Erik Burgess, Published October 09 2013

Community Connect at Fargodome offers 'warm and supportive' place for homeless

FARGO – One year ago, Rosanne McClain was thrown off a balcony and shattered her hip.

She’s been homeless since then, attempting to put back the pieces of her life while staying with friends and struggling to find work.

It was that fall near Jamestown, N.D., that landed her at Sanford Health in Fargo, and eventually led her to the Fargodome on Wednesday morning, where she waited for a free haircut as part of the Cass-Clay Project Community Connect event. The event has been sponsored twice a year since 2007 by the Fargo-Moorhead Coalition for the Homeless.

Despite her homelessness, McClain, 63, laughs with wide eyes behind rose-tinted glasses when she talks about what led her to Fargo, including a 19-year stint in Medina, N.D., under the witness protection program.

“It’s not the best life. I don’t recommend it,” she deadpanned.

For someone like McClain, who can’t walk or stand for long periods of time because of her hip, Wednesday’s event was perfect, she said.

Services that many homeless people want or need – haircuts, dental work, legal services, help securing identification documents, flu shots and spiritual support – were all provided at no cost under one roof.

Laurie Baker, executive director for the homeless coalition, said providing access to a variety of services in one “warm and supportive” place is more convenient than having homeless people travel around town to get each service individually.

“The homeless service system is super, super complex, so people end up doing this incredible run-around trying to find what they need,” she said.

‘No wrong door’ system

Baker hopes to take the idea of the Community Connect program out of the Fargodome and into the greater community next year using a new program called CARES, or Coordinated Assessment Referral and Evaluation System.

With CARES, the community will phase out the current a la carte system by designating certain locations as “access points” into the myriad world of services that homeless people seek out and need.

“You get scattered around” in the current system, said Greg Bush, who spent nine months being homeless before getting his own place in the Fargo High Rise last year. He blew out both elbows, so he now lives on disability and battles heavy depression.

The CARES system is a “no wrong door” approach, Baker said, meaning there is no wrong place to go if you’re a homeless person seeking help.

For example, if a homeless person who is not a veteran shows up at a place that offers services only to veterans, that service provider won’t just refer the person somewhere else or turn them away.

“They’re going to do everything they can do – more than just refer. More than just, ‘Here’s a bus ticket,’ ” Baker said. “… It’s a much closer working together. It’s a sharing of resources.”

The system would operate in west-central Minnesota and the entire state of North Dakota, and would have a shared database among the service providers, making it easier to keep track of homelessness numbers in the region, Baker said.

The homeless coalition hopes to learn sometime this month if it has been awarded a $200,000 grant from the Bush Community Initiative.

More homeless in F-M

Homelessness has increased steadily in Fargo-Moorhead over the past decade.

The 2012 Wilder Research survey released in early September showed there were 624 homeless people in Fargo and 250 in Moorhead. Baker said the Wilder survey, which counts the number of homeless people on one particular day, is only “a snapshot” of the problem.

Shelters here have been consistently overfilled, even during the warmer summer months when they typically aren’t as full, Baker said.

“And everybody has turn-aways all the time,” she said.

Even the new CARES system wouldn’t directly address the lack of affordable housing in the area, an issue Baker said her group is struggling with. Normal rents here can be twice the monthly income of the average homeless person, she said.

Upstairs at the Fargodome on Wednesday, a man with dark, wide sideburns, wearing a black T-shirt, strums a guitar while people sit at long cafeteria tables for a free meal.

The man, Raven Darkcloud, 43, battled addiction and was homeless for years in Chicago and Olympia, Wash., before moving to Fargo and getting married in 2003.

Events like Community Connect give homeless people some hope and a sense of community, which is important when you’re struggling to live day by day, Darkcloud said.

“It lets them know that there are people that still care,” he said, “and that are willing to not give you a handout but a hand up.”

Sitting in a row of chairs waiting for a haircut, McClain said she has slept outside, using tractor trailers for shelter. She now has strong faith, friends and an unmistakable cheery demeanor that keep her going.

“I’ve been scared to death,” she said. “I’ve also had some really good times and I’m trying to make myself comfortable being happy and not upset. That’s the best way to go about it. Try to be happy.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518