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Kandiyohi County drawing attention to homelessness

Corie Haverly, from Lutheran Social Services Youth Programs, sits by a display Thursday during a resource fair on homelessness that was held at the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services building. Participating agencies are getting the word out about homelessness in the county and ways volunteers can help address it. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

Teri Schulte couldn't be happier to have a home. "It would've been a very cold winter in my car," said Schulte, a soft-spoken woman.

The 35-year-old had slept on friends' couches, stayed at the Shelter House in Willmar and lived for a time in her car with her four cats.

"Imagine me and four cats and a litter box in a car," said Schulte, who had been "chronically homeless" for nearly five years.

"It was rough," said Schulte. "It was demeaning."

The day before Thanksgiving she moved into a furnished apartment in Willmar, thanks to the Supportive Housing program. The federally funded program is administered by the Salvation Army here.

"I'm very warm this winter," she said.

The program is currently providing assistance to seven people who meet the requirement for being homeless, said Jo Boraas, Supportive Housing manager. The program is at capacity and she had to turn down requests for assistance from other homeless individuals who live in Kandiyohi County.

On Thursday, Boraas and representatives from the other four agencies that make up the Homeless Task Force of Kandiyohi County put on a resource fair at the Health and Human Services building in Willmar.

Their purpose was to let people know about homelessness and to issue a call to action.

"We're getting the word out there," Boraas said.

The task force includes the Salvation Army, Heartland Community Action Agency, Kandiyohi County Family Services, Lutheran Social Services Youth Program and Shelter House.

The group's awareness campaign includes a locally produced video and a new brochure on hometown homelessness.

The members have also established a new fund, separate from the housing program, to help homeless individuals with everything from a food voucher to a bus ticket.

Community leaders and representatives from churches and local agencies attended the event to learn more about homelessness in Kandiyohi County and ways to meet the needs of people without a home.

"There's a need. There's a very strong need," Boraas said.

"There's no specific population that's homeless. It's widespread," she said, and includes everyone from children to senior citizens. Given the current economy, no one is immune from homelessness.

Boraas also asked Schulte and another program participant to attend the fair to tell their stories and help "erase" the stereotypical face of someone who's homeless.

"I never looked homeless," said Schulte. "If you see me on the street, would you even guess?"

With a mental health disorder that requires medication, and some poor choices along the way including self-medicating with alcohol and narcotics, being homeless was a major challenge Schulte faced. With support from a number agencies, she has now been sober for five months and intends to go to college this fall.

"I've had a ton of support in the community," she said. "It's been a godsend."

With tears streaming down her face, Michele Belton said she is "so thankful" for the housing program that helped her obtain an apartment in Willmar in December.

It's put her life on a new, positive route, said Belton, who is 37.

"It's helped me to have hope," she said.

Homeless, in part because of legal issues and following a stint in jail, Belton said the housing program, community agencies and the county's task force on homelessness have been answers to her constant prayers for help.

"Thank God they saw something in me," said Belton.

Humbled and thankful, she shudders to think where she would be without the agencies that are helping her to help herself.

"I'm grateful these things exist to give me hope," she said. "It's all about hope."

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750