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Northlands Rescue Mission: A day in the life at Grand Forks' only emergency homeless shelter

Troy Pryor came to Northlands Rescue Mission in Grand Forks about 10 weeks ago and is grateful for the help he's received. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 3
Sadie Olson is the Client Services supervisor at Northlands Rescue Mission. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 3
Vance Perez plans to work road construction in Duluth when construction season starts up and has been in Grand Forks for about eight months. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald 3 / 3

Many Grand Forks residents likely drive past Northlands Rescue Mission at 420 Division Ave. without a second thought. But, as the only emergency homeless shelter in the city, the multistoried white building has been a lifeline for hundreds of people over the years, staff and clients say.

Take Troy Pryor, a Michigan native who said he moved to Grand Forks after a stint in Minot. A recovering alcoholic, Pryor said he feels hopeful for the future after checking into the shelter 10 weeks ago. Before coming to the mission, he said he went through alcohol treatment programs three times.

"It's been a rodeo," he said. "I've been in some bad situations for the past three years."

Now Pryor works with the mission's social worker, Anita Adams, to make strategies for life outside the shelter. That includes resume building, apartment hunting and meeting with other social service providers in town.

Since coming to the shelter, he said he hasn't felt like drinking.

"I'm grateful," he said. "You make a list of things you have to do to get back in line and keep picking away at it."

For Vance Perez, a client who hails from Wisconsin, the mission has been "extremely helpful" as he navigates a plan to find work. Perez said he checked into the shelter recently but plans to head out to Duluth when road construction starts up again.

"I've probably stayed at, like, six different missions before, and this is one of the best ones," said Perez, who's lived in Grand Forks for the past eight months.

During clients' stays, they're usually given chores or tasks to complete each day. For Pryor, that includes emptying outside trash and ashtrays. He also helps heat lunches and dinners on the weekends, he said.

Other clients are tasked with mopping and cleaning bathrooms, unloading donations or preparing food.

The mission's clients can stay at the shelter for a maximum 90 days, but that can be extended depending on their circumstances, Adams said. For instance, clients may be permitted to stay longer if they're awaiting medical treatment, or if they're waiting to hear back on a potential apartment.

The 90-day policy stems from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's guidelines for emergency homeless shelters, according to Adams.

"I will extend if I can give a good reason should I ever be asked," she said.

History of helping

The mission has been serving people experiencing homelessness for more than 70 years. In 1942, the Rev. Joseph Trankina opened the shelter as the Grand Forks Mission and Service Center. A Chicago native, he was led to Christian ministry and mission work after the death of a niece, according to the mission's website. Trankina initially moved to North Dakota to become a missionary on Native American reservations.

Now the mission operates as a private, non-profit organization serving homeless individuals in Grand Forks and eastern North Dakota. In 2017, the shelter served more than 500 clients. And in 2018, that number declined to 488 clients. Mission staff aren't discouraged by the drop-off, however.

"We're actually glad to see that number down from 2017 because it means more at-risk people have been successfully moved into housing," said mission spokesman Matt Collings.

The shelter has capacity for about 100 people and currently houses about 46.

Homelessness isn't quite as visible in North Dakota cities as it may be in larger metropolitan areas in the United States, but it remains a persistent issue in the state, mission staff said.

Sadie Olson, who mans the front desk as client services supervisor, said the mission deals with "a lot of personalities" on a regular basis.

"Every client is different," said Olson, who's responsible for breathalyzing clients to ensure sobriety at the shelter.

Olson also juggles phone calls as she admits clients and visitors. It's not an easy job, and it can quickly take a toll on people, she said.

Still, she said she's continually encouraged by donations of money, clothes and food from the Grand Forks community.

"People are great in the community," she said. "Every day you see good things."

Focused on accountability

As the mission's social worker, Adams is primarily focused on building relationships and trust with clients.

Given some clients' mental health issues, building trust can be difficult, Adams said. So, she said she always tries to be "straight-up honest" with clients about what they can expect at the mission.

"We're just honest and continue to be honest and supportive. I never shame people," Adams said.

As clients recover, mission staff focus on remaining as supportive as possible without intimidating or threatening, Adams said. But there's still a strong focus on accountability at the shelter, Adams said.

"Sometimes I have to be firm, and just go, 'I'm not sure I can follow your train of thought when that happened, because it seems so out of the norm for you.' That's the most criticizing I get," she said. "We don't use coercion or anything. That way, folks trust us."

Paying it forward

For many clients, helping others is one way they can help themselves. Another client, who spoke under the alias Tiffany, said she purchases self-help books at the local Salvation Army and gives them to the mission.

She and her husband, who own a car, also will give other clients rides as needed.

"We're fortunate to have a vehicle, so we'll help out whenever we can," Tiffany said.

Ultimately, clients are responsible for their success outside of the shelter, mission staff and clients said.

"I have to do the work, and I have to plug into that's everything available to me," said Pryor. "Little by little, it'll come together, and that's called hope."

Dan Niepow

Niepow covers social and community issues for the Grand Forks Herald. Before joining the paper, he worked as a magazine writer and editor. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he currently resides over the river in East Grand Forks, Minn. To reach Niepow with story ideas, send him an email at dniepow@gfherald.com or call him at (701) 780-1110. Follow him on Twitter @dniep.

(701) 780-1110
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