To the average person, cars are for getting from one place to another, tents are for special camping trips and couches are a comfy place to settle into while watching a movie.
But for some, cars, tents and friends’ couches are the only places available to sleep at night with some sort of cover overhead.
Since the New Pathways program permanently closed its doors in 2019, those in Crow Wing County experiencing homelessness and in need of a warm place to stay for the night have no option closer than St. Cloud.
A group of nonprofits, law enforcement officials and local public employees, however, are trying to change that.
Spearheaded by Brainerd-based nonprofit Bridges of Hope, Crow Wing County and other community organizations, a nightly warming shelter is proposed for South Sixth Street in Brainerd.
“It just seems like we’re a big enough community, and we’re a community that tends to take care of people pretty well except, for some reason, this one situation,” Bridges of Hope Executive Director Jana Shogren said during an interview Oct. 12. “So we just think that we should have a local solution for people who are experiencing homelessness.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Crow Wing County facilitated a temporary grant-funded protective sheltering program, offering motel vouchers for those with nowhere else to stay. Between March 2020 and May 2021, the county served 386 people through the program, with an average of 30 people per night. Those served were people who reportedly lived in cars or tents, temporarily stayed with friends or family, were in unsafe living situations or were transitioning out of treatment, jail or other systems.
Shogren said she often hears from people who don’t believe there’s a homeless problem in Brainerd. But just because there aren’t people sleeping up and down Washington Street or camping out in tent cities doesn’t mean there isn’t an issue.
“The fact is we do know that we have homeless folks here,” she said.
But with that program discontinued, Crow Wing County is again void of any type of homeless shelter. The most that can usually be done for someone in need of a place to stay for a night is a bus voucher for a trip down to St. Cloud. And even if a person is willing to leave their home city and venture to an unfamiliar place, getting to that shelter is not a certainty, as only so many people are admitted before a certain time.
“It’s scary,” Crow Wing County Adult Services Manager Tami Lueck said. “They don't know what they’re facing there, whether or not they’ll get in for the night, and then what do they do when they don’t or can’t?”
There’s also no promise of a bus ride back to the Brainerd area, potentially adding to any already existing stress and anxiety.
For those who seek out housing resources through the county or nonprofits like Bridges of Hope, a solution won’t usually present itself overnight. It takes time.
“We don’t just have an apartment for somebody tomorrow,” Lueck said.
But the new shelter, proposed at 1919 S Sixth St. between Wright and Madison streets, would offer 12 hours of a warm place to sleep. The plan is for the shelter to be open from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. and provide adult clients with a cot, a pillow, a blanket and a locker for their personal things. It would have 20 cots available in a wide open space with a divider for men and women.
Though the shelter would not operate as a day center with any support services on the spot, the location is near resources like Crow Wing County Community Services, Bridges of Hope and the Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen. And it would be supervised at all times by trained staff members who can recognize needs and direct clients to appropriate resources if need be.
Retired Baxter Police Officer Ann Hunnicutt is on board to be the shelter director and in addition to her law enforcement background brings years of experience in the military, in education and in working in the foster care system, along with a degree in social work. She currently works as a behavioral management specialist at Riverside Elementary School.
“My whole career has been dealing with people, how to help people, where to find resources for people,” Hunnicutt said. “... I just love to help people, and this is my next calling.”
A community come together
The proposed shelter is several years in the making and is not a new idea for Brainerd.
“We’ve had lots of conversations through the years as a community, and we feel like there’s been a lot of stops and starts and just never a full launch of anything,” Shogren said, noting past efforts have been too broad, trying to fix the problem in foul swoop.
This shelter would not be the end-all, be-all to homelessness in Crow Wing County — as it would just be a nightly facility for adults — but it’s a start.
“Once you do that well, it’s easier to build onto that rather than trying to do too much and not doing it well,” Shogren said. “We’re laser-focused on doing this one piece really well and making sure it sticks around.
Other community partners committed to that goal include the Baxter Police Department, Brainerd police and fire departments, Brainerd Area Coalition on Homelessness, Brainerd Housing and Redevelopment Authority, Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation, Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office, Crow Wing Power Community Trust, Lutheran Social Services, the Initiative Foundation, Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen and various area churches.
Coordinators have also sought advice from the Wolfe Center, a nighttime homeless shelter in Bemidji after which this project is largely modeled.
Coordinators estimate about $275,000 is needed to open the shelter and run it for the first year, with follow-up years potentially costing less. So far, $57,000 worth of funds have been secured from various community organizations — like Brainerd Area Coalition on Homelessness, the Initiative Foundation and Brainerd Community Foundation — and another $85,000 is pending.
Organizers hope to raise another $70,000 during a sleep out event the first week in November. “Sleep out so our neighbors can sleep in” is a campaign running Nov. 1-17, where community leaders and supporters will sleep outside Bethlehem Lutheran Church in northeast Brainerd to raise money for the shelter. Participants will get a piece of cardboard, a sleeping bag and a tarp for the night, with the goal of raising both funds and awareness.
Bridges of Hope plans to take the lead on the project for the first winter, which would not be until 2022 after lease negotiations are complete and all the necessary permits obtained.
The next step is to go before the Brainerd Planning Commission with a letter of intent Wednesday, Oct. 20.
The letter will serve as the shelter coordinators’ intent on applying for a conditional use permit to run a homeless shelter, which is not an allowed use in the city’s current zoning code.
As the city is working to rewrite it’s zoning code, though, there is a moratorium of sorts on conditional use permits, meaning city staff is not obligated to review and grant permit applications during the rewrite. Depending on the project’s timeline, Community Development Director David Chanski said warming shelters could be added to the city’s new zoning code — which is on track to be completed by the end of February — or the city council could pass an interim resolution allowing shelters in the current code, if it so chooses.
Preparing for potential pushback
Shogren, Lueck and Hunnicutt know that a homeless shelter might not be an ideal development idea for Brainerd residents and understand people will have concerns.
But the shelter will have constant supervision, and organizers are confident in the low-barrier, high-expectation structure they have set up. The criteria to use the shelter will be low, but those who abuse any of the clear expectations set from the get-go would be asked to leave.
Shogren believes their conversations with shelter organizers in Bemidji have really helped as well.
“We just said, ‘Scare us. Scare us out of doing this project. Tell us what a horrible night in the shelter is like,’” Shogren said. “And they’re like, ‘Maybe someone gets a little rowdy, one of our well-trained staff members talks them down, and they go to bed.’ And that’s not to say there’s zero incidents, but they really did paint a picture for us. … They really didn’t have any big, scary stories to tell us.”
Another comfort is the backing of local law enforcement, like the sheriff’s office and Brainerd and Baxter police officers.
Baxter Police Chief Jim Exsted has spoken with law enforcement officials in Bemidji and in Rochester, which also has a shelter with a similar concept, and said those he talked to had nothing but good things to say about their programs.
“The hope is to not introduce a facility that’s going to draw people in. We’re simply looking to serve the community as it already exists,” Exsted said. “... The goal is to simply help somebody survive a super cold night, and that’s it. And that’s what’s working in the other communities, too.”
But those who do have concerns are invited to ask questions.
“I think oftentimes, things seem scarier than they really are when you just don’t have enough information,” Shogren said. “I mean, that may seem simple, but I would just hope that people would engage with us, ask us questions.”
More information on the shelter project is available at bridgesofhopemn.org/warmingshelter, and questions can be directed to Shogren at Bridges of Hope at 218-825-7682.
And Shogren reminds the community to remember who the people in need of services like a shelter are.
“These folks are in our community and are our neighbors. We should care and want the best for our neighbors,” she said. “... This is somebody’s son, sister, mother, brother.”