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Local charities say needs growing though jobs plentiful

Whether it is meals, help with rent or utility bills or a warm place off the street, the demand for services to the area's needy is growing, according to some local charities.

Turkey dinner prep
Steven Henderson, Erika Hamre Noah Thompson and Taylor Clark , all from Fertile, Minn. and members of the Beltrami Youth Group peel potatoes at the Northlands Rescue Mission for the annual Thanksgicing Day dinner today. Herald photo by John Stennes.

Whether it is meals, help with rent or utility bills or a warm place off the street, the demand for services to the area's needy is growing, according to some local charities.

"This summer and this fall have been unreal. It's humongous, and we're not the only agency," said Maria LeBlanc, program director for emergency assistance at St. Joseph's Social Care. "I've been here four years, and this has been the hardest fall so far."

Grand Forks' 4 percent unemployment rate has not shielded it from a growing need for social services. Some seeking help are new to the area and already in dire circumstances, when they arrive from more economically depressed areas. Others are existing residents struggling with high food and fuel prices or medical bills.

"The cost of groceries has gone up and gas has gone up. If you're on a fixed income or low income, it affects you," said St. Joseph's Executive Director JoAnn Brundin. "Even if they're working, they just can't make ends meet."

"It's getting harder to have a shelf full," said Cristina Campos, operations manager of the East Grand Forks Food Shelf.

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At the Northlands Rescue Mission, Executive Director David Sena said he's seen a large number of clients this fall, which means there will be more through the winter as the homeless population settles in until spring.

Needs rising

St. Joseph's, until recently the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, runs a food pantry and provides emergency aid.

Brundin said she has noticed increased demand for both services in the last two years after smaller increases in 2008 and 2009.

"We had for a couple of years kind of plateaued, but then we've seen it go up again," she said.

St. Joseph's has helped 391 households with its emergency services through October, an increase of 98 cases or about 25 percent compared to the same time last year, Brundin said. Its food pantry has served 2,020 households this year compared to 1,795 in 2010.

Campos said the East Grand Forks Food Shelf had served 106 new households this year, almost tripling demand.

Long winter

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At the Northlands Rescue Mission, the beginning of winter could mean a season of tight quarters for its clients.

The Mission, which houses, feeds and provides vocational and other services for homeless men and women, has had 120 residents per night in recent weeks, and its director is expecting more.

"Once it gets past that, we have to start using overflow," Sena said. "It usually goes up heading into winter."

Mission resident Chris Krom, 25, said he had lived in the facility for two months and planned to stay until the spring. He is starting a job as a dishwasher in December, but said the cost of rent and scarcity of apartments in town made it difficult to move out.

"That's why a lot of people try just bunkering down until winter," he said.

The facility has room to accommodate 125 in its dormitories. If it has more than that, clients have to sleep on mattresses in temporary quarters, such as a conference room.

"I hope not, but we know that as winter goes on, people tend to stop moving around," Sena said.

Different needs

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Sena said the Mission had around 200 new clients come into the area in the last two years, and many are still coming to the state as economic refugees looking for work in the state with the country's lowest unemployment.

"Anecdotally, what we're hearing is people are looking for jobs," Sena said.

Many of the new homeless in Grand Forks end up here by passing through from the Twin Cities or South Dakota or after being turned away from the Canadian border. Some of those who come through the Mission do not have the skills for the available jobs or lack the documents necessary for job applications, such as driver's licenses or Social Security cards, keeping them from finding work and moving out of the facility, according to Sena.

"It's amazing how many of them come and they don't even have any documentation," he said.

LeBlanc and Brundin also said they have talked to people who have come to the area after hearing about North Dakota's low unemployment rate, but needed help when they failed to find jobs.

"They're coming up here thinking they're going to work in the oil fields," LeBlanc said.

For those who have work, something like illness or car problems can mean lost paychecks needed to pay rent, buy food or cover utility bills.

"We have a group on fixed incomes, but we have others I would call the working poor," Brundin said.

Campos said some of her clients are new to the area, but many are families that cannot keep up with rising costs.

"All those expenses, basic living expenses are higher," she said. "It's tougher all around."

Reach Bjorke at (701) 780-1117; (800) 477-6572, ext. 117; or send email to cbjorke@gfherald.com .

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