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Homeless 'day center' is on wish list of new Fargo downtown master plan

A woman staying at Fargo's Gladys Ray Shelter looks through her belongings Friday, Jan. 5, 2018. (Ryan Johnson / Forum News Service)

FARGO—On a wish list full of high hopes for downtown, one item stands out not for its extravagance but a plain, practical goal.

The Downtown InFocus master plan approved by city commissioners last month to serve as a blueprint for the neighborhood includes developing a homeless "day center."

It's a goal local leaders in the field have championed for years—these experts helped get it included on the InFocus plan—and it could become a reality sooner than imagined.

But Jan Eliassen's vision isn't a luxurious setting. Instead, she envisions a basic facility where anyone who needs a place to go during the day, when emergency shelters close to guests, can get inside, enjoy a cup of coffee, take a nap or shower, browse the internet, or store some of their things.

The director of Fargo's Gladys Ray Shelter said she's learned that homeless people follow an unwritten "schedule" to occupy their time.

They might go to the Salvation Army for breakfast until that facility needs to clear out guests. From there, they could spend time at the public library before starting a long walk to get dinner and shelter at another place, such as the New Life Center in Fargo or Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead.

"I always say that homelessness is a full-time job just trying to get from one place to another because Fargo-Moorhead is so spread out," she said.

A day center could address that by concentrating services and providers in one place, she said. The facility could also become a vital tool in the work to end homelessness here, according to other local experts.

Many reasons

Cody Schuler, executive director of the Fargo-Moorhead Coalition for Homeless Persons, said a day center could be a crucial resource for the community. While it would be a new offering here, he said several organizations and shelters have stepped up to fill in some of the gap.

That includes the Dorothy Day House in Moorhead, an overnight shelter that offers "visitor services" such as meals, showers and laundry during the day.

Fargo has also had a veteran's drop-in center for nearly seven years at the Gladys Ray Shelter that functions a lot like a day center. That program is funded by the local Veterans Affairs health care system, with the VA paying for the city of Fargo to provide services.

Diana Hall, the Fargo VA programs manager for veterans housing and employment programs, said she'd like to offer more, and that's why the agency is already planning a possible full-fledged facility in downtown Fargo.

Her goal is to get the city and other homeless service providers to collaborate in the project and make it as comprehensive as possible.

"Our collective dream is that we would have services for homeless individuals maybe all in one spot," she said, adding she'd like it to serve as a "one-stop shop."

Hall said the VA is already starting to do some estimates and get tentative financial commitments. It's not finalized yet, but she said it could be a reality in as little as two or three years.

Eliassen said a day center could serve as different things to different people. One person might need a place to warm up, while another might want help writing a resume.

Even something as basic as a building with laundry, snacks and storage would be a "dream come true," she said.

Whatever the motivation, she said a day center makes sense for downtown. Eliassen said she'd like to believe locals will realize that keeping the neighborhood diverse and hip will require "people from all walks of life" to be there.

It could also save money, she said, because homeless people would likely have fewer criminal citations and arrests if they have a place to go during the day.

"If the motivation is to make homeless people less visible, a day center that's low barrier will be a way to do it," she said. "If you are worried about people that are out in the cold, a day center's the way to address that."

Schuler said it's hard to know how receptive the overall community might be to a day center. Still, he said its creation could address some of the issues that come up about homelessness in downtown, such as loitering or panhandling.

"It may look like it's just about meeting immediate needs, but overall, it's part of a critical strategy that we have to reduce and to end homelessness in a meaningful way," he said.

Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson is the Features Editor for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He previously wrote for The Forum and the Grand Forks Herald.

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