Homeless problem hits home

FAIRMONT – What does homelessness look like?

A man with bare feet, sleeping on a sidewalk, a newspaper for bedding? A woman with a shopping cart overflowing with bags filled with who knows what?

These aren’t sights most Fairmont area residents are accustomed to. In fact, there are people in Fairmont who would say they have never seen a homeless person, but that isn’t necessarily true, as homelessness wears many different faces.

“We seem to have a large number of people who don’t seem to have anywhere else to go who come here,” said Martin County Library director Jenny Trushenski. “… How many public places are there in this town where they can go and not be bothered?”

Julie Caraway-Jensen is program director for Partners for Affordable Housing in Mankato, where the Welcome Inn and Theresa House provide the nearest homeless shelters to Fairmont. Over the past few years, Caraway-Jensen has noticed an increasing regional trend in men, women and families seeking emergency shelter.

“We have seen a lot of people from Fairmont. A couple years ago, we served 10 households from Martin County,” she said.

The causes of homelessness vary: Mental health conditions can be one issue, but other health complications can easily set people back too, or car troubles, or any other number of hiccups that can happen in life.

“We would all be shocked if we could see how many people are living that way: It just takes one thing to happen and that throws the whole system.

“Lot of times, by the time we see people in the rural part of the state here … they’ve stayed with family, friends, hotels, they’ve just run out of places to stay. if they have a car, they’re in their car,” Caraway-Jensen said.

A shortage of affordable housing is one huge contributing factor she sees.

“I always say we ask people to do the impossible: work for minimum wage and pay for an apartment,” she said.

In Fairmont, those who can’t afford full-priced housing can seek out Section 8 housing and public housing, such as the Friendship Village complex. At this time, and much of the time, neither are available due to high demand.

“I think a homeless shelter is needed in Fairmont,” said Ruth Lewis-Clover, public housing manager in Fairmont under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Of 30 recent applications for public housing in Fairmont, 4 of 5 indicated their current living status as homeless.

“One person indicated he was sleeping in his car. Another was living in a dilapidated trailer, another said he was in a tent and was desperate to find somewhere before winter,” Lewis-Clover said.

Many of the requests to Human Services of Martin & Faribault Counties for housing assistance are referred on to Lewis-Clover, who said she is at a loss for how to help. Her units are filled, and even when there is an availability, Friendship Village requires incoming tenants to pay first-month rent and a security deposit.

“Minnesota Valley Action Council can assist with that, if MVAC has the funds, but they often run out,” Lewis-Clover said.

Minnesota Valley Action Council does get state and federal money to prevent homelessness and end homelessness, but it’s not enough, according to Kate Hengy-Gretz, supportive services coordinator.

“One of the most frustrating things with our program is that there’s not enough money to help everyone who needs assistance. … We’re only able to assist about 20 percent of the people we talk to, and a fairly good percentage of the people we are not able to assist, even if we had the money … because their housing is not affordable,” she said.

The programs MVAC offers are typically only for one month, for short-term emergencies, not long-term crises. In order to qualify for the funds, a person’s basic housing costs need to be less than 50 percent of their net income.

Looking at a two-year period, for Martin County, Hengy-Gretz screened 158 different households, about seven a month that were facing housing crisis. Minnesota Valley Action Council only has enough funds to assist 16 households in Martin County per year.

“There’s a lot of need out there. A lot of need,” Hengy-Gretz said.

While the council lacks funding to assist everyone, it does help in other ways, often through brainstorming possible solutions, short- and long-term.

“We try to refer them to other agencies, and sometimes there is emergency assistance at the county that can help. We can talk about family and friends who could maybe help, by either offering a place to stay or loaning them money. We talk about creating a payment plan with the landlord, using tax returns wisely.

“We try to be very, very creative,” she said.

They also talk about what they can do when there are no other options. Hengy-Gretz tells people about the shelters in Mankato and other places in the state, and she also gives them ideas for where they can sleep in their car overnight without getting in trouble, like Walmart parking lots, where their safety isn’t guaranteed, but the lots are well lit and the stores are open 24 hours a day. For people with children, she tells them about Lutheran Social Services, which provides a crisis nursery where children can stay for up to 72 hours.

“We have very, very tough conversations with people. Sometimes the only option I can suggest is, ‘Can you find a tent somewhere?'”

The majority of these conversations are with people who are working, but have been unable to find full-time work, and they have no health benefits.

“It seems like it’s getting busier, like circumstances are getting worse,” she said.

A 2012 statewide Homeless Study by Wilder Research institute found a 6 percent increase in homeless adults, youth and children from 2009.