Without a home
Many of the people this article affects the most will never read it. They don't have home delivery of the newspaper. They don't have a home.
Jessica Boyer, executive director of United Way of Douglas and Pope Counties, led a panel discussion on homelessness in the area last Wednesday.
She said a lot of people aren't aware of the homeless in Alexandria and the surrounding communities because people who are homeless aren't out in the community with the rest of us. They don't shop, go to the bank or frequent restaurants.
Panelists Jennie Hevern of Douglas County Salvation Army, Katy Mohabir, a retired coordinator of the Runestone Regional Learning Center, and Tamara Christenson, counselor at Jefferson High School, along with Boyer shared their observations and experiences with people who are homeless.
"Alexandria exists in layers," Mohabir said. "Most people don't see the homeless."
HOMELESS IN OUR COMMUNITY
West Central Minnesota Communities Action (WCMCA) conducted its annual Point in Time homeless persons count for the night of January 25, 2012. An estimated 120 households were counted this year. In 2011, 43 adults and 61 children were recorded.
Boyer stressed that these numbers are not concrete; they represent the number of people who filled out a survey or have had a person attest on their behalf.
Surveys were distributed at the United Way Food Drop at New Life Christian Church. About 200 families came through the food drop on January 26.
"The numbers don't reflect people living house-to-house, sleeping on couches," Christenson said.
The count is anonymous and helps determine how much money the community receives to address housing needs, according to WCMCA. Point in Time is a government-initiated project in connection with the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offices. An area's HUD funding is influenced by the information gathered through Point in Time surveys.
In Douglas County it costs $54,000 a year to meet the basic needs of a family of four. A single person working fulltime needs to earn at least $11.74 per hour. According to the information Boyer provided, a family of four is in poverty if their annual income is $22,000 or less.
"Minimum wage comes nowhere near meeting your needs," Boyer said.
The average income of a family Hevern works with is between $12,000 to $15,000. One individual she helped is working fulltime and cannot afford $350 a month for rent.
Hevern addressed the issue of economic inequality in the area.
"What concerns me the most, is we don't have the opportunity for children to be integrated into the community," she said. "It stays with them from cradle to grave."
Integration into the student body is where Christenson sees the greatest division between the "haves and have-nots." She works primarily with 10th through 12th graders at Jefferson High School, although she interacts with junior high school students as well.
Christenson said many children who are living in poverty are not given the same opportunities to participate in school activities as other students. Their parents may not be able to afford gas to drive them to events. Economic inequality becomes more apparent.
The inability to participate in school functions affects kids' ability to learn and socialize. It also increases the potential for alcohol and drug use, Christenson said.
"They are less likely to connect with positive, healthy activities," Christenson said. "It affects the type of jobs that they will have."
She said employers look at soft skills like communication, attendance and appearance, which are difficult to cultivate when homelessness has affected a person's life.
On January 27, 21 students were homeless. Hevern said at the beginning of the last school year, there were 64 homeless students.
The transiency of a student without a stable housing situation makes it difficult for kids to graduate, said Mohabir. The number of homeless children in Minnesota has tripled since 1991.
"How do we stop the kid from going down the river?" Hevern asked. "We have to stop them at the top."
WHERE TO GO FOR HELP
Why can't the homeless just go to a shelter? Because there isn't one in Douglas County. Low income housing in the area has not been keeping up with the demand. Waiting lists for subsidized housing are growing longer.
"It is just ridiculous there isn't a shelter in this area," Christenson said.
Last fall, Boyer met a single father who was living in a U-haul truck with his two children - both were school age.
"We talk about homeless and how something needs to be done and it never happens," Hevern said.
Panelists brainstormed for ways to resolve the shelter issue. One proposal is using the Jefferson school for transitional housing and training programs once the new building is constructed. However, a plan and funds are not in place to acquire the property.
Mohabir said the only way to address the issues allowing homelessness is to contact legislators and become active.
People who qualify for welfare are receiving little more than they were 25 years ago, according to Mohabir. The panel agreed that the education level of the homeless population is not a match for the types of jobs that are available and the jobs that are available don't pay enough.
Transportation becomes a factor when a person does secure employment. Public transportation doesn't adapt to a person's schedule and often people can't afford the upkeep of a vehicle, said Hevern.
"They're always just a little behind the eight-ball," she said. A Regional Transportation Committee is currently looking into how to better the public transportation services in the area.
United Way of Douglas and Pope Counties was recently awarded a $30,000 grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation to support the Community Impact Coalition. The coalition will address homeless services, emergency shelter and resources to families and others in need.
Approximately 20 of the 38,000 people living in Douglas County attended last Wednesday's talk at Alexandria Technical and Community College.
If you or someone you know is homeless or experiencing economic difficulty, contact Douglas County Social Services at (320) 762-2302; United Way of Douglas and Pope Counties, (320) 834-7800; Salvation Army, (320) 589-2329; or West Central Minnesota Communities Action, (800) 492-4805, extension 133, 135 or 137.
HOMELESS IN DOUGLAS COUNTY
120 homeless households in 2012
56 homeless households in 2011
1,000 Minnesotans are turned away from shelters each night.