Meeting held to address homelessness in Montevideo

Jessica Stölen-Jacobson
Montevideo American-News

A group of around sixty persons interested in discussing ideas of ways to help with homelessness in Montevideo gathered last Thursday evening at the Montevideo Community Center. The group consisted of members of the community, local pastors, local business owners, County Commissioners, and speakers who work with various area organizations that are involved with assistance for the homeless.

Tanya Ostenson, Emergency Services Coordinator at Prairie Five speaks to the crowd of around 60 persons interested in discussing the issue of homelessness in Montevideo last week.

The meeting was led by Our Savior’s Lutheran Church Pastor Don McKee, who is also a part of the St. Martin’s Fund - a fund that operates among the various churches in the community to provide assistance to people in need in Montevideo. Justin Vorbach, Southwest Minnesota Continuum of Care Coordinator, spoke at the meeting about various programs that have been established in surrounding communities. Vorbach noted that in Marshall, in 2010 a non-profit called The Refuge was started by a community group. The Refuge worked with the Travelers Lodge motel to have six rooms available for shelter at all times that allowed people to stay 30 to 60 days with case management providing assistance to find housing and jobs. In 2012, a community group in Hutchinson developed housing opportunities for McLeod County for emergency shelter, forming a board that operates funding and services through United Community Action. In Willmar, a community group developed under a National model called Family Promises that utilizes what Vorbach described as a “church of the weak model”. The Willmar program utilizes churches in the community to provide day shelters that allow people to do laundry, search for jobs, and have some child care time. Each week a different church hosts coordinated emergency stays, providing supper, a place to sleep, and breakfast. Vorbach explained that in Marshall there is a coordinated entry system for those seeking assistance.

“So that people don’t go from agency to agency, there’s a coordinated entry point. They do an assessment and the assessment gets put into a Statewide database with the person’s permission. Then, they are placed on a list if they want to be considered for transitional housing or permanent supportive housing if their homelessness is more profound,” says Vorbach. “The solution to homelessness isn’t shelter. It’s affordable housing. Nationwide there’s a shortage. There’s not the profit incentive to develop affordable housing like there is luxury condos.” Vorbach explained that the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership has worked over the years to develop hundreds of units from Willmar to Mankato East. An example of this is the West Wind Townhomes that were constructed in Willmar ten years ago, offering 28 townhouses that fall into the category of affordable housing defined by 30% of income. The housing units were constructed through low-income tax credits that filter through the State from the Federal government. 

Montevideo also has an entry point for homelessness assistance through Prairie Five. “Unless it’s a domestic violence situation, then it’s the Women’s Rural Advocacy Program or WRAP,” says Vorbach. Pastor Don McKee turned discussions over to individual tables, where talking points were listed on a sheet of paper for community members to discuss in small groups. There was also an area for questions and an area to sign up to be a part of a committee to further discuss the issue at future meetings for those interested. At one table, much of the discussion centered around the idea of how much time is needed for emergency shelter to help people become established enough to obtain housing, as well as ideas of ways to educate the community about the situation.

Community member Ed Delf said, “Part of this is letting people in the community know that there are resources and that they can get help somewhere. We look at homelessness as an urban problem for places like San Francisco, LA, and Minneapolis. I’ve been reading articles about the rural outlook. It’s just as bad in rural areas as in urban areas, but we don’t have the programs to help with the problem. People in rural areas don’t really even think much about homelessness because it’s always someplace else. People think we don’t have homelessness here, but look at it.” Delf went on to talk about how those who are not homeless can still be in a precarious situation. “A lot of people are just one or two paychecks away from homelessness. If they have a savings account, they’re lucky. If they have a car problem they have to decide if they have food or if they pay their rent. We have problems and we need to try to educate people so that they know about it.”  Dave Swenson mentioned the statistic he found most startling from the presentation made by Prairie Five’s Tanya Ostenson, saying, “In just Montevideo, 65% of individuals qualify for low-moderate income housing.” (According to the median income statistics on the Census report.) “Other towns have addressed this. We have models that show us how we can do this. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Swenson added.

After the table discussions, the meeting resumed for a question and answer time. “We wanted you to think about the questions,” said McKee. “We wanted you to think about the ways we can move our community forward.” Questions asked by the participants centered around addiction, time allowed in shelters, and services offered in addition to housing.  McKee closed discussions noting, “We don’t know why everybody is homeless. We do know that most people choose not to be homeless. There are a few who choose to be homeless, but when you start talking to people, you learn how they got to the places they’re at. Their stories are very different.” McKee noted that those expressing on the table forms that they would like to be part of further discussions would be invited back to future meetings and that he hopes to involved the Montevideo City Manager in those discussions as well. “The problem is not going to go away overnight, but I think it’s something we can make better somehow,” said McKee.