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Give me shelter: Number of homeless rising in rural northwest Minnesota

Angie Brown, 47, is a former resident at the Care and Share Center in Crookston and moved into an apartment a week ago. photo by Eric HYlden/Grand ForKS hERALD1 / 3
Sue Shirek has been the executive director at the Crookston Care and Share Center since August, 2014. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 3
Mike Peterson, a former contractor, is now the kitchen manager at the Care and Share Center in Crookston. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald3 / 3

CROOKSTON — Angie Brown says she can't stop smiling.

The 47-year-old woman has been in her own apartment for less than a month now after living for several months at the Care and Share Center, a homeless shelter located in downtown Crookston.

"When you move, it's a great feeling. They helped me get on my feet," Brown said. "It's nice, it's really nice. I can't thank them enough."

Brown's departure, along with her daughter and two grandchildren, frees up room in the shelter, which has seen the demand for its services continue to grow over the years, said its director Sue Shirek.

"We run at full capacity or near full capacity all the time," Shirek said. "I do end up turning people away an awful lot. I think that there are more families, more so than ever, that are experiencing homelessness in our area."

In the northwestern 11-county area of Minnesota, data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shows the number of homeless people recorded during point-in-time counts has more than doubled from a decade ago.

The counts are conducted on a single night and include sheltered and unsheltered homeless.

The 2014 count conducted in January recorded 299 people — up from 110 people in 2005. A majority of individuals counted resided in emergency shelters or transitional housing, though 19 were reported as being unsheltered.

Regional trends

About 90 miles to the east in Bemidji, the Village of Hope Shelter has seen a similar increase in demand, according to Executive Director Sandy Hennum.

A waiting list has formed for the 28-bed shelter — which is configured into six family apartments — and fluctuates between about eight and 13 families.

The number of homeless households in the region grew from 68 to 151 over 10 years, according to the federal point-in-time count. To keep up with the growing number of homeless families, Village of Hope readjusted its living space to cater just families.

"There just aren't a lot of options for families or anybody for that matter," Hennum said.

While some of their clients are from northwest Minnesota, Shirek and Hennum say others move to the region for a variety of reasons.

Some are attracted by the plethora of jobs available with manufacturing companies. Share and Care Kitchen Manager Mike Peterson said others drift from western North Dakota after they discover life in the Oil Patch isn't all they thought it would be.

Looking for housing vouchers, people leave the Twin Cities and head north where they're told they're more plentiful, Shirek said. Housing vouchers are subsidies used to pay for rent by qualifying low-income families or individuals.

"People look to see where they can get help and northwest Minnesota is one of those areas," Shirek said. "Sometimes it's because of the housing vouchers available. Sometimes it's because it's a safer environment, and they've heard that there are jobs up here."

Even with vouchers, a housing shortage in northwest Minnesota still poses a problem for people attempting to settle down in the region.

"We definitely have a lack of affordable housing," Hennum said of the Bemidji area.

Those who can't get into one of the region's few shelters are left to find other housing. Some stay with relatives, some sleep in cars and others live in housing that may lack heat or running water.

"Sometimes they're staying in cheap hotel rooms with their entire family," Shirek said.

People who can afford housing also run into barriers and end up homeless because their credit, criminal or rental history prevents them from being accepted as tenants.

Limited resources

The landscape of northern Minnesota is a much different one for the homeless than the urban areas of the Twin Cities.

Resources are spread far apart in the rural region, which can require a long drive to try to find a bed for the night. For example, the next closest shelter to Light of Hope is located 70 miles away in Grand Rapids, Hemum said.

Those in need of medical care at Care and Share are sometimes sent 30 miles west to Grand Forks where they're seen at Third Street Clinic by Lynnell Popowski's staff. Third Street Clinic works to provide clients whose income is within 150 percent of the poverty level with financial assistance for prescriptions, vision and dental care.

Of the 831 unduplicated clients served last year, 62 came from Minnesota.

"It's not a large portion, but we're certainly available to people from Polk County," Popowski said.

For many, one thing going wrong, such as unexpected medical bills or a job loss, is the difference between keeping a roof over their head and finding themselves homeless, Shirek said.

Brown and her family endured an apartment fire and major illness before coming to the Care and Share Center. She now resides in Crookston while her granddaughter finishes up school there. Her daughter and grandson live in Grand Forks to be closer to medical care her daughter needs for her pregnancy.

Brown said she is grateful for the help she received from the shelter and staff that allowed her to move into her own home.

"When we first got here, we was lost. They didn't have room, but they made room for us," Brown said. "It's a blessing."

Number of homeless recorded during annual point-in-time count in 11 northwest Minnesota counties.

Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development