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Homelessness in the Becker, Otter Tail County area hard on elderly

You might be surprised how many people in the area are just a lost job or a blown transmission or a medical emergency away from homelessness. Hoping to catch them before they fall is Marcia Otte, family development director at Mahube-Otwa. She an...

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You might be surprised how many people in the area are just a lost job or a blown transmission or a medical emergency away from homelessness.

Hoping to catch them before they fall is Marcia Otte, family development director at Mahube-Otwa. She and her staff use a wide network, built up over 30 years, of contacts in local government, churches, housing, and the community to give crucial housing support to people who just don't get it from family, friends or anywhere else.

A grant writer extraordinaire, Otte has helped her department's budget grow from $5,000 in 1988 to over $2 million now, all from grant revenue. The money helps pay for six housing workers, with backgrounds in social work, criminal justice and psychology, who serve as advisors, counselors, watchdogs and when necessary, resourceful finaglers to help people find and keep a home for themselves and their families.

Sometimes the job can feel like two steps forwards and one step back, but for every failure there's a success story.

Like the Otter Tail County man in his 70s who was living in a condemned mobile home with 18 dogs and no running water, using an old microwave oven as a doorstep.

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Don't be surprised: Otte says the elderly are one of largest growing homeless populations. It's why Mahube-Otwa applied for (and landed) a $250,000 grant to target the problem of senior homelessness. "I think that senior program is just going to do nothing but grow," she said.

In the Otter Tail County case, the obvious solution was to move the man to a new home.

But he flat-out refused to go. He loved his dogs, didn't want to part with them, and he wasn't going anywhere.

So Mahube-Otwa worked with him. "We found the resources to fix up the place, dig a well, let him stay there," she said. "Sometimes we have to look at what they need and want ... We stay in contact with him to make sure he's OK."

Relationships can be poisonous, and sometimes family and lovers are the cause of homelessness.

In Mahnomen County, an elderly woman in a single-bedroom senior living unit was facing eviction because her adult kids from the Twin Cities moved in and wouldn't leave. Eventually they were all kicked out, the kids went back the the Twin Cities, and the woman was found living in an old, unheated garage near an abandoned house. Mahube-Otwa helped find her a place to live.

A woman and her children, fleeing an abusive relationship, were model tenants, until she forgave her boyfriend. He moved in from Chicago, and when told he had to go, the family ended up trashing the place, causing thousands of dollars in damage to Mahube's supportive housing complex for the long-term homeless.

When Otte's staff is feeling low over things like that, she reminds them of the many success stories she's known over the years. Just last summer at the Becker County Fair, where she was manning a Mahube-Otwa booth, a woman stopped by with her husband and three children.

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"You don't recognize me, do you?" the woman asked.

But Otte remembered her face. Her parents had kicked her out of the house at age 17 for getting pregnant, and she had nowhere to go and no support whatsoever. Mahube helped set her up with a place to live, and Head Start workers taught her how to have a healthy pregnancy and care for the baby.

"She's living a good life now," Otte said. "She told me she doesn't know what she would have done without Mahube-She sends everyone she knows there if they need help."

(Coming up in Sunday's edition, a closer look at how Mahube-Otwa goes after the problem of homelessness in the community)

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