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Fargo homeless shelter has critics

Shelter advocate Amanda Reddy uses a metal detector to screen Dennis Myhre as he checks into the Gladys Ray Emergency Shelter last week. (Michael Vosburg/The Forum)1 / 2
Each person who stays at Fargo's Gladys Ray Emergency Shelter is allowed two pieces of luggage that is kept here for the night. (Michael Vosburg/The Forum)2 / 2

FARGO -- Vicki Hoover signed the petition, like many of her neighbors.

She was concerned what the Gladys Ray Shelter, the only area shelter that takes homeless people who have been drinking, would mean for the Jefferson neighborhood in Fargo where she grew up.

Hoover thought, What about the nearby elementary school a few blocks away? But in the 20 months Gladys Ray has been open, she's found little cause to continue worrying.

"I still would have liked to seen it someplace else, but now that it's here I have no problem with it," said Hoover, who lives just across First Avenue South from the shelter, which is at 1519 1st Ave. S.

Hoover's take is by no means unanimous. Some are still livid to see homeless drinkers drawn to the area. Shannon Grindberg, for one, is downright mad.

"They have no care for people's property," said Grindberg, who's opening a store a few doors from the shelter. "These people are not good people."

Lingering concerns are relatively rare, though. Or so says Dawn Morgan, president of the neighborhood association. She said most neighbors have embraced the shelter, and the association's liaison on the shelter board said he has not received a single complaint from a member.

At the very least, concerns about the school, Jefferson Elementary, have not panned out. Though the principal at the time opposed the location of the shelter when it was under consideration in 2007, the principal now, Brad Franklin, said he hasn't had any issues with Gladys Ray.

"It really kind of turned around," Morgan said. "Their fears outpaced their sense of reality."

'We think it's right'

The reality for Jan Eliassen, the shelter's director, is that running the grant-funded Gladys Ray is cheaper than having emergency personnel such as police and hospitals deal with homeless people other shelters won't take.

A study of a similar facility in Seattle published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in March backs her claim, finding that avoiding the drain on emergency services there saved $4 million over a year.

"We come here every day because we think this is the right thing to do," Eliassen said.

Rebekah Krueger, executive director of the Fargo-Moorhead Coalition for Homeless Persons, said she thinks the shelter is doing the right thing, too: trying to prevent the homeless from living outside during the region's harsh winters.

Since Gladys Ray opened, "I don't think we heard of anyone dying on the street," she said.

Eliassen also believes the shelter addresses the reality of addiction. A 2007 report by the Wilder Foundation found that 43 percent of homeless people interviewed in Fargo said they were alcoholics or chemically dependent.

Seeing regular visitors reduce their consumption in order to stay at Gladys Ray, realizing that they will be asked to go to the attached detox center if they are heavily intoxicated, is gratifying to her.

"It's still not sobriety, but it's still a good thing," said Eliassen, who is herself a recovering addict 22 years sober. "That's a big part of what we believe."

One recent Monday, a 55-year-old Gladys Ray regular originally of Bottineau, N.D., said he credits time he spent at the shelter with drying him out. He hasn't had a drink since Aug. 10 and is now trying to secure an apartment.

"It gave me the incentive I needed," said the man, who declined to be named.

Enabling addicts?

Grindberg doesn't think the shelter does much good. From his perspective, Gladys Ray enables addicts who cause trouble in the neighborhood.

"What are these people doing but taking advantage of the system?" he said. "It's not a healthy thing."

Grindberg said Gladys Ray residents often trespass on his property, cutting through his yard, littering and once even stashing a knife and drugs on his property.

He's worried about shelter users warming up in his store once it opens in December. "It's going to be a major concern," he said.

Eliassen said she welcomes neighborhood residents to come to her with concerns. The shelter does periodic sweeps of the area to pick up trash, and when there's time, does welfare checks in the wee hours of the night to check for problems in the area.

"I'm not going to sit here and suggest everything has been perfect," she said. "I feel for the neighbors. I understand the concerns."

There's no denying that the shelter requires more police attention than other facilities for the homeless. For 2009, from January through mid-October, there were 385 calls for service to the shelter, said Sgt. Mark Lykken.

Of those calls, 120 involved intoxicated subjects, 82 were unwanted or disorderly people, eight had warrants out for their arrest and three calls were for fights, Lykken said.

In comparison, there were 42 calls to the New Life Center - another Fargo homeless shelter - during the same time period, and New Life has almost triple the capacity of the 35 that Gladys Ray is designed to hold.

"It looks like a lot of calls, but to me it's a record of our commitment to safety," Eliassen said.

To Grindberg, it's more like a threat. He bought the house next to his store so that he can keep an eye on it better.

"I'm going to keep tabs on all these idiots," he said.

Eliassen said she realizes that some will simply not support the shelter's mission. Regardless, she tries to draw out the good in the people Gladys Ray serves.

"They can't just be a homeless drunk man. They existed before that moment," she said.