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Meeting the challenge of homelessness: Youth, poor not immune in Kandiyohi County area

If organizations can’t help, the homeless often end up on the streets. In Kandiyohi County, many spend their nights in cars, fish houses, parks, at Walmart or under bridges. Tribune file photo illustration by Ron Adams

Ask Kandiyohi County residents if homelessness is a problem in this area, and many would likely say no. But those who work directly with the community’s poorest citizens said that perception only exists because usually, the homeless look just like everyone else.

The Wilder Foundation, which measures homelessness in Minnesota every three years, found that more than 10,200 Minnesotans were homeless in 2012, a 6 percent increase from the 2009 study. Of those homeless, nearly half — 46 percent — were children and youth under the age of 21. In Greater Minnesota, the number of homeless adults over age 55 nearly doubled in three years.At $49,512, Kandiyohi County had the 30th highest median household income in the state.

In Kandiyohi County, several organizations exist to help the homeless find more permanent housing in the community. But with limited funding to go around, it is impossible to offer help to every homeless individual and family, officials said.

Heartland Community Action Agency, which serves four counties including Kandiyohi, has several short- and long-term programs designed to help homeless people access resources and learn skills necessary to keep a stable home.

“Oftentimes, they just bail. These are things that no one ever taught them in schools,” said Debi Brandt, community services director at Heartland. “Homelessness is very much a cycle. Once they find stable housing, they don’t always know how to sustain it.”

In today’s economy, many people now facing homelessness have found themselves there because of a “bump in the road,” said Chasity Ommodt, supportive housing counselor at Heartland.

“The main reason people are facing homelessness is because they’re not able to meet their basic needs,” Ommodt said. “This could be because they’ve lost their job or had their hours cut, their spouse died, or even something like their car broke down. For whatever reason, they just can’t make ends meet anymore.”

Last year, Heartland served 500 homeless households but turned away roughly 1,000 households, often because of limited funding. When this happens, staff will redirect people to the county or to another agency, such as the Salvation Army.

If another organization can’t help, the homeless often end up on the streets. In Kandiyohi County, many spend their nights in cars, fish houses, parks, at Walmart or under bridges.

It’s not just adults who can find themselves homeless. Youth homelessness is also a problem in the area, and it’s one that continues to grow each year.

The Lutheran Social Service Youth Programs, based in Willmar, has programs designed to help homeless children and youth, ranging from emergency response services to transitional housing to permanent supportive housing.

“Youth often need someone to direct them to the right place,” said Angie Mateski, program manager for LSS Youth Programs. “We do a lot of outreach and work as hard as we can to help them find a solution.”

This can include anything from helping teens and young adults find an apartment to helping them secure vital documents, such as driver’s licenses and Social Security cards, so that they can apply for jobs.

At any given time, LSS has about 20 youth on a waiting list for its housing services, with the greatest need in Kandiyohi County. In the last two years, LSS served 146 youth through street outreach, counseling, basic needs and shelter, and paid for 40 youth to receive shelter in area hotels, averaging four days per youth.

One of the trickiest parts about working with homeless youth is that many may not initially see themselves as homeless, said Doug Doering, housing coordinator for LSS Youth Programs. “Couch hopping,” where a youth spends a few nights at one friend’s house and then moves to another friend’s house, is quite common.

“As long as they have a place to stay, they don’t consider themselves homeless,” Doering said. “They just survive. We consider youth to be homeless if they do not have a stable place to put their head every night. If someone can make you leave, then you’re homeless.”

Youth can become homeless for any number of reasons: a relative passes away, their hours are cut at work, their parents are abusive, or they may struggle with mental health issues. No matter how a youth becomes homeless, it’s heartbreaking whenever LSS has to turn someone away because of limited funding, Mateski said.

“When we have no resources and all we can say is, ‘Here’s a blanket and a bag,’ that’s difficult,” Mateski said. “It’s hard to go home at night and not wonder if they worked it out. Those days are hard. But then there are days when everything falls into place for a youth, and that is incredibly rewarding.”

Staff at both LSS and Heartland recognize that their jobs — helping the poorest in the area find housing — can be challenging at times because of limited budgets, but they said they are committed to making a difference in any way they can.

“We’re fortunate enough to have super staff who are always willing to listen,” Brandt said. “That helps. Money is only short-term, but we can give people hope.”

“We know that every little bit helps, because it works,” Doering said. “I’ve seen it work before. You give a kid hope, and it’s amazing what they can accomplish.”

Ashley White

Ashley White is the community content coordinator for the West Central Tribune. Follow her on Twitter @Ashley_WCT.

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