Coronavirus increases homelessness in west central Minnesota
Concerns that COVID-19 could be carried into homes of family and friends has couch-surfers searching for housing. The Willmar-based Family Promise program has seen numbers needing assistance increase.
WILLMAR — Fears that couch-surfing friends or relatives could bring the coronavirus into their homes has resulted in an increased number of homeless families and individuals seeking shelter in west central Minnesota.
Since COVID-19 emerged in Minnesota, the requests for housing and services have “gone up tremendously,” said Kelsey Vosika, executive director of Family Promise in Willmar. The nonprofit provides temporary shelter and supportive services for homeless families and single women.
“I’ve seen it skyrocket in the last two weeks,” she said.
Vosika said part of the increase is because people who had been sleeping in a spare room or on a couch are being asked to leave because of concerns about coronavirus.
“They’re not wanting other family members in the home,” Vosika said. Sometimes the homeowner has an infant and is worried the virus could be brought into the house, she said.
Whatever the reason, Vosika said during the last couple weeks, an increased number of people have been calling Family Promise looking for housing or other services provided by the nonprofit organization.
But at a time when the need is the greatest, the availability of shelter space has been decreased because of COVID-19.
Typically, participants spend time at the day center at the First Presbyterian Church in Willmar only when they are not working or not in school. There at the Family Promise offices, they receive help with services such as financial counseling, signing up for rental assistance or finding a job.
Participants sleep and eat supper at Kandiyohi County churches that rotate hosting the program on a weekly basis, with church members visiting with the adults and playing games with the kids while sharing a meal together.
But in order to protect the clients and the nearly 80 volunteers that make the program work, the church rotation has stopped.
Now the entire program is housed at the day center.
Small rooms — including one that housed computers that clients could use and another that has toys for kids — have now been turned into sleeping quarters. It’s a tight squeeze, especially now with six young children staying there.
Area churches still provide evening meals, but the food is dropped off at the day center and there’s no visiting.
Vosika said the program typically has enough space for 14 individuals to sleep at the churches, but at the day center there’s room for about 10 people to sleep, depending on the size of families that can be grouped together in one room.
Because the requests for shelter outnumber the space, Vosika said they are “diverting” some clients by providing essential services, diapers, money or help to transport them to housing elsewhere. She said they currently divert about three people every day.
There’s also a waiting list for people who want to stay at Family Promise, and Vosika said that list will likely get longer as the weeks of living with coronavirus continues.
“I expect it to increase significantly,” she said.
What’s happening at Family Promise is being seen statewide with homelessness increasing as COVID-19 expands, said Rhonda Otteson, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.
Otteson, who lives in Willmar, said there has always been a shortage of homeless shelters in rural Minnesota, and with the coronavirus, there is now a “looming threat” that more people will lose their housing.
Vosika said Family Promise is continuing to provide the same services, but how they are being delivered is changed because of COVID-19.
In order to protect the limited staff, including herself, the day center is staffed on a minimal basis. People needing help are screened over the telephone, and if a face-to-face appointment is made, their temperature is taken before they can come through the locked doors at Family Promise.
So far, she said, they have not had anyone with a fever.
Vosika praised the local churches for their continued strong support of the program, but said additional assistance is always welcome. There is a need for more electronic equipment for children to do distance learning, she said.
Other agencies are also adapting to providing services as needs grow, while also maintaining social distancing.
Heather Jeseritz, family service manager for United Community Action Partnership in Willmar, said their doors are locked but the office is fully staffed and looking for creative ways to provide services, including assistance with paying utility bills and rent. With so many people now unemployed, Jeseritz said she anticipates the number of requests to increase.
“We’re gearing up for that,” she said. “And using our resources as best we can.”
United Community Action Partnership has several offices in southwest Minnesota and serves Cottonwood, Jackson, Kandiyohi, Lincoln, Lyon, McLeod, Meeker, Redwood and Renville counties.
Applying for assistance may be new territory for families who have never had to do it before, Jeseritz said, but now are forced to because of the sudden job losses.
“They’re facing this burden they’ve never faced before,” she said.