BAXTER -- When Brenda Biever woke up to single-digit temperatures Tuesday morning, Nov. 12, she felt compelled to act.
The Brainerd woman knew there were people in her community who did not have shelter to ward off the cold, and as a person recovering from addiction who’d experienced homelessness at multiple points in her life, she knew what that felt like. On a whim, she said, she decided to organize a drive to collect hats, mittens, socks and blankets. Through Facebook, she soon learned of a community meeting set to address homeless shelter needs in the Brainerd lakes area, scheduled for that same afternoon. And she decided to go.
“I would like to help. That ‘nobody left behind’ aspect, I mean, when I say nobody, I mean nobody,” Biever, 57, said after the meeting at The Journey North Community Church in Baxter. “Just because you’re an addict, that doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person, it means you made some bad choices. And just because you’re a felon doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it means you made some bad choices.
“We are all people. We all deserve a place to live with food, warmth. It doesn’t matter, we all deserve that. It’s just our human rights. So my goal is just to do whatever I can to help.”
Biever was one of more than 100 community members who showed up to the brainstorming session organized by Stephanie Pontius, a member of Lakewood Evangelical Free Church in Baxter. For eight years, Pontius was the host church coordinator working with New Pathways, a homeless families nonprofit. Leaders of the Cambridge-based organization announced recently they would not resume services in Brainerd following a hiatus prompted by disagreement with the organization’s landlord, Halverson-Taylor Funeral and Cremation Care on South Eighth Street. Previously, the nonprofit coordinated with about a dozen local churches to provide overnight accommodations for families experiencing homelessness.
“When the program discontinued, I just felt compelled,” Pontius said Tuesday. “We don’t just say, ‘Oh, too bad.’ I just felt confident that if we got people talking, if we just gathered people together, something would happen. And this has been like super encouraging, because it’s like way more response than I ever imagined.”
Representatives from several social service organizations that work with homeless and vulnerable populations, congregants from a number of area churches and other concerned residents filled The Journey North auditorium with a goal in mind: to develop a vision for addressing the needs of those without stable housing. Addressing those needs, organizers said, means thinking in both the short- and long-term, and it means finding solutions not only for families, but for individuals and couples as well.
The Rev. Steven Rye, senior pastor at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Baxter, told the group a recent organizational meeting helped guide the direction of the conversation moving forward.
“When we gathered together last week, there was definitely a consensus in the room that we needed to think big,” Rye said. “An idea was shared about what we might do that would involve a two- or three-year time frame at least to accomplish. But there was also a consensus in the room that we have immediate needs, that it is getting cold here now. And thankfully the Lord has provided a little incentive for us to understand just how important and how urgent our work is.”
Homelessness happens here
The local need is constant and more widespread than most people realize, according to advocates. With the exit of New Pathways, there is no longer any shelter available in the lakes area, and the closest shelter, located in St. Cloud, is nearly always operating with a waiting list.
Rebecca Manning, housing program supervisor with Northern Pines Mental Health Center in Brainerd, shared statistics concerning clients the organization is working with right now. There are people sleeping in cars that don’t run, those currently jailed with no place to live once they’re released, families facing homelessness due to domestic violence, and individuals and families who are couch hopping -- some of whom are being exploited or are in homes where drug use and violence are present. In total, 24 people are unsheltered or unstably sheltered, Manning said, and that’s only those currently receiving services from Northern Pines. The Salvation Army, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, Bridges of Hope, Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center and others all have their own caseloads or are frequently contacted by people in need.
“We get a lot of calls because we’re the women’s shelter,” said Lenora Zino, volunteer community relations coordinator at the women’s center. “It’s terrifying, the reality of families that are living in cars that are homeless with children. A lot of sleepless nights because I worry about, is this family, a baby going to die? Freeze to death? Be accidentally asphyxiated? And why couldn’t I do more? I think this is a community humanitarian effort and we need to move forward.”
Bernadette Foh, executive director of Bridges of Hope, noted the Brainerd Public Library is another organization witness to homelessness. Library staff confirmed this Wednesday.
“We see more people as it gets colder waiting outside before we open for someplace warm to go, and we’re certainly happy to be a place where people can come to,” said Laurel Hall, public services and acquisitions library assistant.
Hall said in addition to warmth, the library is the only place locally providing free access to computers people may need to access housing and job resources. People sometimes remain at the library from open until close, she said.
“We’re providing the services that we can at the limitations that we have and hoping that there’s someplace they can find to keep warm overnight,” Hall said. “ … I think it’s important for the public to know that even though there are people who are experiencing homelessness in the library, it’s still a place where everybody is welcome. It’s people’s behavior that determines whether they’re welcome. … We have not had any issues with people being disruptive. They’re just patrons, like everyone else.”
At Tuesday’s gathering, the group broke into two, with one smaller group focusing on the short-term need and the other discussing long-term solutions. Longer-term goals include not only providing emergency shelter, but establishing more low-barrier housing in an area facing a less than 2% vacancy rate for rentals.
The next step is for committees to form, Pontius said, to determine tangible actions that can be taken. There is no specific leader or organization solely in charge of the effort to be as inclusive as possible, said the Rev. Dave Bostrom, missions and local outreach pastor with Lakewood church, who led the short-term solutions group discussion.
“If there’s going to be one thing that I think will make this work and have a significant impact on our community in general, it’s going to be how well we work together on this, and quit creating territory where this is my turf and this is your turf. That’s what this can’t be about,” Bostrom said. “ … Think of our community. Brainerd is a good size. But look at how many people are here. We should be super encouraged that something’s changing.
“New Pathways leaving, yeah, that’s tough. But boy, if all of sudden this becomes community based and we start really serving those needs, that’s going to be really pretty great and really special.”
Interested in taking part in the community planning efforts for homeless housing? Additional meetings are not yet scheduled, but organizer Stephanie Pontius said she hopes to have those details ironed out very soon.
Call Pontius at 218-851-5373 with ideas or to express interest in being part of a committee.