“Since about 2008, we have had a 349 percent increase in homelessness across North Dakota,” said Michael Carbone, legislative and advocacy co-chair of the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People. Carbone and three other panelists spoke at an open forum on Thursday.
The event, sponsored by the NDSU Service Learning and Civic Engagement branch of Student Activities, filled the Hidatsa Room of the Memorial Union to the brim with students, faculty and members of the community interested in the area’s homelessness situation.
The hour-long forum covered topics including who is affected by homelessness, why the numbers of homeless people are increasing in the state and F-M area and what is being and can be done to fight the plight.
Who are the homeless?
“Many of the people that are homeless in this community are, in fact, members of the community,” said Jan Eliassen, director of the Gladys Ray Shelter & Veterans Drop- In Center in Fargo. “Not having a house doesn’t take away from that.”
Eliassen said that homeless people care about their community and wish for its well being just like those with houses do.
But as area deals increasingly with homeless people, resources are being spread thin and regulations have been made more exclusive.
Screening criterion has gotten tougher as more people move to the state, said Laurie Baker, executive director of the FM Coalition for Homeless Persons. People who have a criminal history have a harder time securing housing.
Along with those with a criminal history, other demographics are overrepresented by the population of homeless people, with high percentages of disabled people, veterans, people of color and children found on the streets of Fargo.
“In our Jan. 23, 2013 point-in-time count, we identified nearly 50 unaccompanied youth,” Carbone said.
Unaccompanied minors were rare not too long ago, but more and more of the youth have been found in Fargo and across the state.
There was a 15 percent increase of homeless people overall between 2009 and 2012.
Lynn Fundingsland, executive director of the Fargo Housing and Redevelopment Authority and CEO of Beyond Shelter Inc., said that the tenants his organization helps find and build housing for receive only 20 percent of the median income of the surrounding counties. That adds up to an impoverished-salary of $10-15,000 per year.
“Credit history has become as almost as important as criminal history – maybe more, in terms of history,” Baker said.
When the floor was opened up for discussion, Kathy Coyle, an NDSU employee that works at Barry Hall, brought up the homelessness she witnesses downtown daily and asked who these people actually are.
“Homelessness is a full-time job, it really is,” responded Eliassen, referring to the difficulties of lacking a home. “Just getting out of bed sometimes feels monumental, and now they have to sprout wings and a tail to fly across town and borders just to get requirements met that the system has put in place.”
“Long-term homelessness automatically takes off 25 years off your life,” Baker said. “I think there is a reason why you don’t see elderly homeless people on the streets.”
Why here, why now?
“The influx of people seeking job opportunities has caused an extreme shortage of housing that is extending from west to east in North Dakota,” Carbone said. Because of the Bakken oil boom, many towns across North Dakota have vacancy rates that are near to virtually zero.
Communities have seen costs of rent increase 300-400 percent since the boom, hitting low-income or fixed-income people the hardest. The problems of western North Dakota are not being contained in the oilfields, either; issues are diffusing across state lines into Montana, throughout North Dakota and even into western Minnesota.
“(North Dakota) being the beacon of employment nationally, we have attracted a lot of people that… became unemployed (from the recession),” Fundingsland said.
Another hypothesis for the rising homeless population in Fargo is that homeless and jobless people come looking for work in North Dakota’s prosperous economy. These people, some of whom only get as far as Fargo, find work, but no home.
“It’s kind of like the rest of the country is a desert, and we are an oasis. Are we a mirage, or are we the real thing?” Baker said.
What is being done?
“I would say that this metropolitan area…has a history of really proactive and compassionate approach to homelessness,” Fundingsland said. “We have been working hard as a community, not just as the homeless-service sector, but as a community.”
Fargo has historically been a proactive city when comes to terms of fighting homelessness, while western North Dakota has struggled with the new issue.
One of the most recognizable faces of homelessness in Fargo is the Gladys Ray Shelter.The Gladys Ray Shelter, a controversial idea when it first opened its doors to the community in March of 2008, works hard at keeping chronic homeless people from drifting from town to town. The shelter tries, instead, to prop the homeless back up on their feet. The shelter is inclusive, too.
“(The Gladys Ray Shelter is) the only (wet) shelter in North Dakota and for a long way in any other direction that serves people even if they’ve been drinking,” Eliassen said. “What we really look at is ‘Can this person be saved?'” Eliassen said.
Other units used to fight less-chronic homelessness include emergency shelters and churches.
This winter, Fargo churches have only had a handful of nights when capacity was full, which is different than last winter. The panel declared, however, that church shelters are not a long-term fix. A more permanent solution must be decided upon in the future to accommodate homeless people.
While physically putting people under a roof is a dire concern, research is also important in the field of fighting homelessness.
A tool that FM Coalition for Homeless Persons is utilizing is the Coordinator Assessment Referrals and Evaluation System (CARES). CARES creates a homeless system to help those who do not understand what entitlements and programs they may be eligible for, Baker said.
“To make (CARES) consumer-centric, any door that anybody walks (will lead) them to where they need to go,” Baker said.
All data, ideas and strategies collected by the many groups that fight homelessness are shared at once. The organizations collaborate and have one underlying goal.
“I like to describe each agency as a scrap of cloth,” Carbone said. “We are throwing all of these scraps of cloth and throwing them on this big, huge problem, and we never quite get this problem covered. So we stitch these pieces of cloth together into a quilt, we have something big enough and cohesive enough to cover the entire problem.”
What can NDSU do?
“This all starts with respect and relationship building,” Baker said. “The most important thing that you can do as an ally (of homeless people) is to break down these stupid stereotypes. Start with respect and relationship building, the rest will follow.”
A student passionate about helping end homelessness can study the topic and search for answers, for the answer is out there, but nobody has quite figured it out, Baker said.
Carbone offers other tidbits of possibilities, like to routinely reading to a child not once or offering one’s services not just on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but on average days, for there are opportunities daily.
“Examine your own skills, your own interests and your own resources and figure out what you have that you can bring to the table,” Carbone said. “We really need to apply all different skillsets to this problem.”
With persistency and hard work comes success, which is what drives the panelists on a day-to-day basis.
“This is thankless work, sometimes-but not always,” Carbone said. From an individual and a macro-level standpoint, there are many gratifying accomplishments that make it worth it.
“I do have days when I look at the difficulty of my challenges,” Carbone said. “I look at the many failures that we experience along the way.”
When his spirits are low, Carbone and others turn back to success stories.
“I worked with a woman who was a long-term victim of sexual abuse and ended up homeless in the wintertime in her van, which was not running, with a child,” Carbone said. “We worked with her, and eventually, she moderated a gubernatorial debate on behalf of my organization.”
“A story like that…it just picks me again and makes me want to go. There are individual successes along the way,” Carbone said.