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Homelessness growing in rural areas

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This summer Hubbard County deputies have been called more than once to evict people living in vehicles in the country, Thursday being the latest. It is symptomatic of a growing homeless problem, say officials at MAHUBE-OTWA.

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Both a long-term program to help the chronically homeless and a short-term program to help people down on their luck are short of funds.

“For every 10 applications we get we can only assist two because demand is so much more than what we have funding to do,” said Marcia Otte, the agency’s family development director. “And we have a substantial housing program. It’s just that there’s not enough for everybody that needs the assistance.”

The federal Department of Housing defines homelessness as people living without flushing toilets, running water or electricity. Long-term homelessness includes “four or more episodes of homelessness within three years or one year of continually being homeless,” Otte said.

“We started this program in 2006 and it’s just been amazing how many people meet that definition,” Otte said. “I never suspected that we would have as many people as we have working with the homeless. “From July 2012 to June 2013, we served 657 households (considered homeless) with 1,584 people within those households. And that is a lot.”

The five-county area includes Hubbard, Mahnomen, Becker, Otter Tail and Wadena. That means each county could theoretically have 300 homeless persons. “When I started in 1988 I had a $10,000 budget (for housing assistance) and it’s now close to $2 million,” Otte said of the mushrooming need.

A 2012 study conducted by the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation surveyed Minnesota’s homeless one day in October 2012. The study counted “10,214 homeless adults, youth, and children in shelters, transitional housing, and on the streets.

Almost one-third of the homeless in Minnesota are children with their families,” the synopsis said.

Other findings include:

-People of color represent 61 percent of Minnesota’s homeless adult population, but make up only about 14 percent of Minnesota’s adult population.

-41 percent of homeless adults are on a waiting list for subsidized housing, with an average wait time of 11 months; another 15 percent were unable to get on a waiting list because it was closed.

-24 percent of homeless adults reported current employment, among the lowest since the study began in 1991.

-79 percent of homeless adults report at least one of three major health issues: mental illness, substance abuse disorder, or a chronic physical health condition.

-In 2010, supportive housing generated at least $123 million for Minnesota taxpayers, returning $1.44 for every public dollar invested.

Children in supportive housing change schools less often, are less likely to experience abuse/neglect, and are less likely to be removed from their parents’ home than homeless children. Otte said one issue contributing to homelessness is the lack of affordable housing and federal subsidies to make housing affordable, or to help people with transitional housing. The list to obtain what are called Section 8 vouchers is closed so federal supplemental aid isn’t currently available for new renters.

“It takes years to get a Section 8 voucher and we really work hard with people to maintain that voucher because once you lose it you’ve really got to work hard to get it again,” Otte said. And a sour economy isn’t helping. Otte said most market rate apartments exceed the amount people can afford, so assistance isn’t available in those cases.

“We look at the clients’ income and say you can’t afford that unit unless you can increase your income,” Otte said. “They don’t like to hear that but we can’t set them up to fail. That’s a huge mistake.”

And foreclosures locally show no sign of slowing down, although banks may have seen the peak. “From Oct. 1 (2012) to Aug. 1, we’ve done 81 cases of counseling people going through the foreclosure process,” Otte said. “It’s the first year we’ve done it so we really can’t compare it to any other year to see if it’s increasing or decreasing. “According to the training we’ve gone to, the requests for mortgage foreclosure counseling are decreasing so hopefully that’s a good sign. “Just when I say we’re getting over the biggest hump of it we get a whole bunch of applications in one week,” she added.

Meanwhile, the agency partners with other non-profits and organizations like the Salvation Army to maximize their dollars and the reach of those funds.

“We can’t even keep up with the numbers that come in and foreclosure prevention,” said MAHUBE-OTWA director Leah Pigatti.

“You hear on the news that foreclosures are being reduced. One week this summer the banks, which send referrals to us, we had 40 referrals from five counties. In one week. “The one thing that happened during the summer is that the Legislature re-appropriated funds by the end of the session. The time of the year is also bad.

“What always happens is our grants run out June 30 and it just takes some time for the Department of Human Services, the Minnesota Housing Finance to filter through all the Legislative requirements and funding amounts so we go for probably July and August without any housing, homeless assistance, money,” Pigatti said.

“Luckily it’s warm weather here. But we have clients that really need assistance and we have no funding because of the timeline, getting the funding going again.” In foreclosures, “the best thing is to give them financial counseling to move on. It’s like a black hole. You can never fill it all.” 

Sarah Smith, Park Rapids Enterprise

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