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Housing project for chronically homeless takes shape in Grand Forks

Tom DellaPaolera, construction superintendent for the LaGrave on First project, and Katie Jo Armbrust, an outreach coordinator with the Grand Forks Housing Authority, check out progress on the four-story, 42-unit housing facility that will give homeless people stable residences. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Four months ago, it was a park. Now, the corner of First Avenue South and Walnut Street in Grand Forks is a frigid construction castle, towering four stories high and echoing with the sounds of workers.

Katie Jo Armbrust, an outreach coordinator with the Grand Forks Housing Authority, walked through on Wednesday afternoon, pointing out what goes where. The building is concrete and wood, with the building's interior skeleton still uncovered. And before the end of the year, it will be a refuge for the chronically homeless—providing a "housing first" service that gives residents a place to stabilize their lives.

"It's pretty amazing to see the transformation from sketches on a piece of paper to formalized drawings by the architects to four stories now, and towering in Grand Forks," said Armbrust, who has been working on the project for years. "It feels pretty good."

Tom DellaPaolera is the construction superintendent for the project. He said work is on pace to finish as soon as late August or early September, and Terry Hanson, head of the Grand Forks Housing Authority—one of the groups behind the project—said its 42 one-bedroom units will be ready for residents before the end of the year. Soon the building will be sealed against the weather, and more mechanical work, like wiring, gluing and the like, can proceed unfettered by the cold.

The project is an attempt to provide a new kind of service to the homeless—one that gives those with a history of homelessness a place to live before tackling whatever else might have led them into severe poverty. On the first floor, Armbrust explained, there will be space for multiple agencies to help with a variety of ailments, from substance abuse to mental illness.

"I think the response of how we're dealing with homelessness is changing," Said Sue Shirek, the executive Director of Northlands Rescue Mission. She explained that "housing first" care is individualized, studying a resident's needs and strengths. "We're focusing on the skills and the positives the clients have, rather than lumping everybody into the category of homeless, and saying that therefore they're hopeless."

Shirek added that the new building—dubbed "LaGrave on First"—is only a "piece of the pie" in the broader group of nonprofits tackling homelessness.

"A lot of people surmised that it was going to be like cleaning house here, and all our (mission) clients will be the 42 (LaGrave on First) clients, and it would empty out and we'd all transfer over," she said. "It will help our harder to serve clients, and it might help some of our clients who might keep coming in and out ... but that isn't everybody, either."

Hanson said the total project costs haven't changed, pegged at an $8.5 million price tag paid for with an assortment of funding sources, from federal dollars to foundation money, with development led by the Housing Authority and Beyond Shelter Inc., of Fargo. The Housing Authority will manage the project, and Grand Forks Homes Inc.—a local housing nonprofit that works closely with the Housing Authority—will own it. No local taxpayer dollars are being used to fund the project.

The project also displaces a skate park that had been on site. Bill Palmiscno, executive director of the Park District, said plans to build the first phase of a new location at Kannowski Park are underway, with a $293,000 project expected to build a more than 4,000-square-foot skate park beginning this spring. Roughly $50,000, he said, will be paid for with Park District money, with the remainder coming from various grants and donations.

"We're hoping to break ground first thing in the spring, and we're hoping that it would be about a 30- to 40-day construction period," he said. "The earlier spring arrives, the earlier skaters can be on it skating."

And back at Walnut Street and First Avenue South, residents will likely move in no later than December—or even earlier.

"I think it's important because we have a niche that does need to be filled," Shirek said. "We don't have housing that has the support for everybody that needs it. This is a great fresh start for the people who do need that extra structure, that extra support, who have the difficulty staying stably housed."

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

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