Hunger, homelessness real issues in area

Hunger and homelessness aren't just 'big city' problems. Contrary to that common misconception, local emergency food and shelter service providers say there are plenty of people right here in Perham, New York Mills, Ottertail and throughout the c...

Perham food shelf director, John Leikness, stocks the freezer with $1,000 worth of anonymously donated turkeys. Photo by Marie Nitke/FOCUS

Hunger and homelessness aren't just 'big city' problems.

Contrary to that common misconception, local emergency food and shelter service providers say there are plenty of people right here in Perham, New York Mills, Ottertail and throughout the county that are in need.

And the need, they say, is growing.

"We just finished a needs assessment, and food is a big issue for folks," said Diane Leaders, the family services director for the Otter Tail-Wadena Community Action Council.

Leaders said there are rising usage rates at area food shelves, as well as for programs like free and reduced school lunches.


"We have clearly seen an increased need," she said.

John Leikness, the director of the Perham Food Shelf, reports a 39 percent increase in food shelf usage this year compared to last year. From January through October, the food shelf served 909 households - up from 653 the year before (an average household is three people).

The numbers have spiked in recent weeks, especially. The food shelf saw its busiest week ever in October, with 37 households served in one week; the average is closer to 22.

Those numbers are expected to continue to rise over the next couple of months, as the holidays are typically a busier time for food shelves.

Many food shelf clients are employed, said Leikness, but are still struggling to make ends meet.

"I'm hearing a lot of people say 'times are tough," he said.

Leaders said she's hearing similar things: "Even though the economy is picking up, I think it's going to take a long time for the rural communities to recover. Most of the families that come to us for help have been laid off or have reduced hours."

This has created not only an increased need for food, but for all sorts of public assistance programs, including emergency shelter. While Leaders said people tend to think of homelessness as a "metro issue," it's very real here in the rural areas.


"I know of a lot of people living in busses," she said. "I know of a lot of people living in campers. I know of people who are doubled up because they can't afford their own housing. We have people evicted every month who have no place to go."

At the Action Council's last count in January, there were 82 people homeless in one 24-hour period in Otter Tail and Wadena counties, a number Leaders believes is, "our highest count ever, and we know there are people out there we're not reaching to count."

Based in New York Mills, the Action Council helps families and individuals through the screening process for public assistance programs like food stamps, MinnesotaCare, WIC, energy assistance and many others.

The Action Council also provides emergency housing services, such as money toward a deposit or month's rent, or motel vouchers. Counselors work with clients to set a budget and get them into a permanent and affordable living situation.

While the need for all types of assistance programs is great right now, Leaders said, the Action Council is working with "fewer emergency dollars this year than we've ever had before," due to reduced funding from the state and less grant money.

In order to help as many people as possible, the organization often partners with the county Human Services Office, the Salvation Army, and local churches, among others, to pool resources.

Yet lack of funds causes the Action Council's three counselors to turn away an average of six to 10 people a day, each. And those are only the people who are contacting the Action Council for help - many more who would qual-ify for services aren't applying at all.

Food support, for example, is highly underused in Otter Tail County. Data provided by Leaders shows that Minnesota ranks 44th out of 51 states and territories in the degree to which low-income people access food support. The state's average participation rate is 65 percent, while Otter Tail County's is just 41 percent.


"Otter Tail has a large number of households that qualify that are not using the service," said Leaders. This mainly happens because people mistakenly believe they won't be eligible, they are deterred by the application process, or they fear the local stigma associated with public assistance programs.

On the up side, Leaders said the county is lucky in that its food shelves are always well stocked and ready to serve those in need.

Leikness said that's certainly true in Perham, where the food shelf has never had to turn anyone away.

"Perham is an extremely giving community - it's very heartening," he said.

The Perham Food Shelf keeps a variety of foods in stock all year long, including meats, dairy, bread, baking goods, vegetables, cereals and much more. It typically gives out about 8,000 pounds of food per month to those in need in the community.

How can I help?

  • Donations of food or cash may be made to the Perham Food Shelf during business hours, Tuesdays from 8:30-11:30 a.m., or by calling John Leikness at 346-6181. Monetary donations may be made out to the Perham Food Shelf and mailed to PO Box 7, Perham, Minnesota, 56573.
  • While the Otter Tail-Wadena Community Action Council does not accept direct donations, those wanting to help may donate food to the local food shelf or to local churches, specifying the funds be used for emergency services. For more information, contact Diane Leaders at 218-385-2900, ext. 136.

How do I use these services?

  • Simply visit the local food shelf - food support is always free, and there's no application fee.
  • Contact the Otter Tail-Wadena Community Action Council at 218-385-2900 or 800-450-2900, or online at
  • People with internet access can find out if they qualify for state assistance programs by visiting and clicking the link to Minnesota. The screening process is anonymous.
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