Homelessness happens here
There are no lines out the door at soup kitchens or people holding signs on street corners in the Brainerd lakes area.
Rural northern Minnesota is devoid of many of the conventional representations of homelessness expected in urban environments—but that only means it's less visible, advocates say.
"Homelessness doesn't look the same here as it does everywhere else," said Carole Paschelke, family services director at the Brainerd Lakes Salvation Army. "I think people are under the impression that Brainerd doesn't have a homelessness issue."
What it does more often look like, Paschelke said, is what's called "doubling up"—people living with a friend or family member while not on a lease or paying rent. This is particularly true in the winter months, when living in one's car or camping outside is more difficult due to weather conditions, she said.
An annual count of homeless households, conducted nationwide for funding eligibility through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development along with state resources, seeks to complete a snapshot of the problem on a single day in January. The Crow Wing County count will take place Friday.
The counts are organized on the local level by Continuums of Care, networks of organizations that strategically plan the use of HUD resources to address homelessness. These funding resources are used to provide housing and supportive services for people experiencing homelessness.
The Central Minnesota Continuum of Care consists of partners from 13 counties, including Cass, Crow Wing, Todd, Morrison, Mille Lacs, Kanabec, Pine, Isanti, Chisago, Stearns, Benton, Sherburne and Wright. AG Huot is the coordinator of the program for the central region. Huot said the count is used by multiple governmental and granting agencies to determine the type and amount of funding available to address homelessness.
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Making everyone count
The annual U.S. Housing and Urban Development point-in-time homelessness count is taking place in the Brainerd lakes area Friday. Between noon and 4 p.m., volunteers will be on site at six locations. All information collected in the count will be confidential and will be used to assist local agencies in funding to combat homelessness.
Paschelke said participants will be surveyed on the barriers their household is facing to permanent housing—whether that be disabilities, mental health, a criminal background or other barriers. Housing counseling will be offered at each event location, and those who participate will be offered a thank you gift while supplies last. The gifts will be a choice of a gas card, food card or a winter hat/mittens.
Who should attend: Those who are staying with a friend or family member, without a permanent place to live or are experiencing homelessness.
Where to go:
- Crow Wing County Community Services, 204 Laurel St., Brainerd, will offer housing intakes.
- Brainerd Lakes Salvation Army, 208 S. Fifth St., Brainerd, will offer soup and sandwiches.
- Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 418 Eighth Ave. NE, Brainerd, will serve a hot meal.
- Our Place, 606 Front St., Brainerd, will offer a hot beverage and cookies.
- Brainerd Public Library, 416 S. Fifth St., Brainerd, will offer a hot beverage and cookies.
- The Shop, 723 Washington St., Brainerd, open 4-8 p.m. to youths only, will offer a hot meal and game night.
Transportation: Transportation is available and will be provided to and from one event location. To schedule, call 866-970-1437.
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In 2016, the count of homeless among all of those central Minnesota counties identified 669 people who were housed in emergency shelter, transitional housing or were unsheltered. Of those, 185 were identified as children under age 18 in households with at least one adult and one child. Eighty-one of those counted were age 18-24 from households without children.
This year, the figures gathered will be used to establish a baseline for youth homelessness in an effort to measure progress toward its elimination.
"Right now, the largest growing population of homeless in Minnesota is youth," Huot said. "We are going to have an increase in strategies to reduce it."
Huot said this population consists of anyone under age 25 who does not have a permanent place to live. Many originate from the foster care system, she said, aging out from state care without having established a permanent connection with a family. Huot said a similar baseline was established for veterans homelessness in recent years, with funding focused on outreach and housing options specifically tailored for that group.
"Our veterans homeless (count) now is at functional zero," Huot said. "We have the programs available to help homeless veterans from their situation into housing."
With the amount of funding hinging on the count, Paschelke said the Salvation Army and Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota are trying to get the word out as widely as possible to ensure the figures are closer to accurate than advocates say they usually are.
"It is never anywhere close to accurately reflecting the amount of services that we're providing," Paschelke said, noting the January timing makes numbers in the northern climates even less reliable. "The numbers are going to more accurately reflect the situation in a southern environment, or an urban environment. In northern Minnesota, people don't even know where to look for folks."
In 2016, Paschelke said she issued 120 vouchers for hotel rooms for non-duplicated households with no place to live in the Brainerd area, and she was confident this did not meet the need. She also offered 50-60 bus tickets throughout the year to assist people in finding shelter at a residential facility, the nearest of which is in St. Cloud. The agency also makes referrals to New Pathways in Brainerd, which offers housing to homeless families with children.
The Salvation Army works with LSS and families and children crisis support agency Bridges of Hope to assist with rehousing efforts. Through these partnerships, Paschelke said she assisted 15-20 households by providing first month's rent.
Another issue with the point-in-time count, Paschelke said, is the federal definition of homelessness does not include those temporarily living with friends or family. The state definition does, however, which is why the advocates are seeking to include those experiencing homelessness in this way to participate in the count.
"That is an important trend in our area that we want to document," Paschelke said. "We can use it to maybe change people's perspective on what homelessness is."
She said those "doubling up" in others' homes are creating unstable living situations, opening up the homes to potential landlord issues should the unauthorized resident be discovered. In some cases, that could have severe consequences for the legal residents of a property, particularly if they are receiving some kind of subsidy toward their housing costs. "Doubled up" situations also increase pressure on the food needs of a household, and Paschelke said this reveals itself through people relying on the organization's food shelf for assistance.
"It kind of creates a whole different set of complications for how we can best serve someone," Paschelke said.
Beyond those chronically or occasionally experiencing homelessness, Paschelke said the Salvation Army is working to recognize how close many in the community are to becoming homeless or are in need of other assistance.
More than half of all households in Crow Wing County are considered "cost burdened," according to data collected by the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. This means the household earns less than $50,000 but spends more than 30 percent of that income on housing needs alone. Information from the Minnesota Housing Partnership shows there are only 39 affordable rental housing units for every 100 "extremely low-income renters" in the county.
While Crow Wing County as a whole reports a poverty rate of 10.4 percent, which is on par with the state's rate of 10.2 percent, the city of Brainerd reports a 21.8 percent poverty rate. The Minnesota Department of Education reports the rate of students receiving free or reduced meals is 41.3 percent within the Brainerd School District, which includes 6,648 students from across the region, not only those residing in Brainerd.
Paschelke said the approach within the region among advocates is to work together as a team, taking a "no wrong door" approach that seeks to ensure people get the help they need.
"That's something that the community has been working on for a long time," Paschelke said. "We're doing a better job of partnering and meeting people's needs in a more holistic way."