Meeting planned for community discussion on homelessness in Montevideo

Jessica Stölen-Jacobson
Montevideo American-News

Homelessness isn’t a concern talked about often in the Montevideo community, but statistically, it’s a concern that’s prevalent enough to bring about discussion on how to address the issue. A meeting is planned for interested persons in the community who may want to be a part of a committee that will work to address the issue of homelessness in Montevideo. Pastor Don McKee, of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, will head up the meeting that is open to the community on  Thursday, October 7th at 7 p.m. at the Montevideo Community Center. 

Pastor McKee has been working on the St. Martin’s fund board for nearly 18 years. The committee is a local non-profit run by area churches that is currently administered by Prairie Five. “We’ve been working on this issue [of homelessness locally] for many years through the St. Martin’s Fund. I’ve tried to educate people throughout the years that we have homeless people here, and many people just can’t imagine that,” says Pastor McKee. “They can’t imagine people who live in their cars. They can’t imagine people who jump from couch to couch until their friends kick them out. They can’t imagine that people have lived under the bridge. And, not so long ago, we had someone dig out a hole and make a little cave in the side of the hill at the cemetery and they were living in that hole in the cemetery.”

McKee has also witnessed the need first-hand throughout the years with the St. Martin’s Fund, as the organization has provided rent and utility assistance to community members. “We’ve helped people however we could, but the problem with helping with rent becomes that the fund doesn’t have enough money to help everyone who is behind on rent. Now we do more with utilities like gas, and electricity. Especially with people who don’t meet qualifications. There are federal and state guidelines and there are people who miss it. We had a guy we helped through the St. Martin’s Fund who had medical bills he had to pay. That caused him to get behind on some other bills, so he applied for assistance and he missed the federal and state guidelines by a dollar. He made one dollar too much and that made him ineligible. That’s where the St. Martin’s Fund can help, but it’s not enough because homelessness is an even bigger issue than that fund,” McKee says.

 Having had those experiences in educating the community on the homelessness happening in Montevideo and Chippewa County, McKee had that in mind when a member of Our Saviors Lutheran Church made a gift to the church, saying they would like the gift to be used to help with hunger and homelessness in Montevideo. “When our board started talking about it, I said, you know people are pretty good about giving money to the hungry, but really the issue is about homelessness and how we help those people,” says McKee. The board decided to open a discussion with Tanya Ostenson, Emergency Services Coordinator at Prairie Five to find out more information about the homelessness statistics in Montevideo. “I want to be able to say this is happening because when the board first heard about it they said there can’t be that many people,” said McKee. 

The statistics Ostenson provided show that in 2020 alone, Prairie Five’s programs that have helped prevent homelessness or helped individuals out of homelessness included the Covid Housing Assistance Program (CHAP) helping 69 households, or 214 individuals with rental assistance. Mortgage Assistance under the same program provided 11 households or 28 individuals stay in their homes in 2020 alone. Prairie Five has arrangements with some hotels in the community to provide an emergency place to stay for people experiencing homelessness, and in 2020, ESG COVID Emergency Shelter stays in motels using COVID funds helped 59 households or 121 individuals. Non-COVID emergency shelter stays in motels helped 46 households or 104 individuals. In addition to that, the Family Homeless Prevention and Assistance program provided first month’s rent/security deposit to 15 households or 31 individuals, and the Homeless Prevention assistance under that program helped 25 households or 60 individuals.

“Basically, if you add up all the things on this list, out of 20 working days in a month if you take out all the Saturdays and Sundays then basically 19 of the 20 days Prairie Five is talking to someone about homelessness. That’s a big issue,” says McKee. After seeing those statistics, the board started discussing how the funds they’d raised could best be utilized to help with the issue. After the donation from the congregation member to be used for hunger and homelessness, the board decided to try to grow that fund more and opened it up for donations from all members. “Then some community members heard about it and so we opened it up to community members to give,” says McKee. “We call it the Montevideo Mission. That’s where those dollars are right now.” With this information, and the funds available to start implementing a plan, the board set to work on brainstorming ideas. 

“We really started dreaming about what this could look like, and as our board talked about it, we thought, it’s not really an Our Savior’s issue. This is a community issue. The community should be talking about homelessness and yet if our board didn’t know about it, how would anybody else in the community other than those who work with it like Family Services or Prairie Five know?” McKee says. “I think the biggest thing is that people just don’t know.” With this, the idea for the public input meeting was created. The meeting is open to anyone interested in helping come up with ideas for solutions to the community issue. “Part of it is an education piece and part of it is what can we do to help? Where can we use the money we raised to help the most? That should be a community discussion,” says McKee. There are plans to invite public officials and city officials to join in the discussion as well. “We’ll have a couple of short presentations and some brainstorming to discuss what we can do, what questions people have and how can we move this forward somehow,” McKee says. 

He hopes that if community members are made aware of the situation, new ideas will surface as to how to best utilize the funds. Tanya Ostenson from Prairie Five will give one of the presentations at the meeting, and McKee hopes to have a representative from Family Services speak as well.  “When you look at the number of the people they’ve helped, I think it’s pretty shocking. Prairie Five has done a lot of great work. Family Services has done a lot of great work. How do we enhance that and make it better or walk with them, however that goes,” he says. The hope is that the meeting will initiate the formation of a community committee that will work on the best options for the funds. “What best serves the people?” McKee says is the question. “Do we need a shelter? If we have a shelter, who is going to run it and how are we going to take care of it? It’s all a question of what best serves the people. Can we enhance programs at Family Services and Prairie Five with these dollars we have? I don’t want to double up. I want to find ways that will help the most, so it’ll be an interesting discussion.”

McKee hopes that the meeting will initiate a community committee similar to the BackPack program that was initiated originally by McKee and Pastor Eunice. After a community meeting was held, a board of around 10 people was formed that then took the program over. “If it’s run by the pastor, when you leave town it usually falls apart. If the community takes care of it, it will continue,” says McKee. “We stepped back and the community board has been running it ever since and they’ve done a fantastic job. I hope it’s like the backpack program where it is local citizens doing it because they have the most invested.” He hopes, also, that the community recognizes that the issue is not new, but that it’s time to talk about it. “It’s always been there, but it’s been under the radar. I’m concerned about the Federal Government’s moratorium on rent ending. Once it’s fully lifted there will be lots of people who haven’t paid their rent for a while who will be out of a home, but even without that, there’s that underlying issue that’s always been there,” he says. “I don’t know what will come out of it, but we need to address it. We just want people to come together and do a little dreaming and talk about how we can address this as a community.”