Increase in the shelter-less sparked meeting of local area social service officials

More than 40 gathered amid the pool tables and counters of the Pelican Rapids Pool Hall for what was likely the first-ever meeting on homelessness in Pelican Rapids–in the unlikely setting of a local recreation room. Though largely unseen and unknown to most Pelican area residents, there has been an increase in the number of homeless in the area, and has been confirmed by Pelican Rapids Police Chief Jeff Stadum. Mayor Brent Frazier acknowledged that he was not entirely aware that an average of 10 to 20 people have been living in Pelican without shelter.
Among those attending the homeless meeting at the Pelican Rapids Pool Hall were Patty Svare and Deb Sjostrom, Otter Tail County Social Services.
State House Rep. Bud Nornes and Otter Tail County administrator John Dinsmore, at the Oct. 12 meeting in Pelican Rapids on the topic of homelessness in the area.
Welcome Place community nurse Kathy Jordahl and Terry Haugrud, one of those who identified himself as homeless.

Homeless in Pelican Rapids?

It’s an issue most of us weren’t aware the community was even facing.

Since winter “came early,” the fact that ten to 20 people have been living without a roof over their heads, the issue moved into the forefront Oct. 12 at an informal meeting.

As local meetings go, it was well attended–with more than 40 packed into the Pelican Rapids Pool Hall. Local and county social services professionals were on hand to learn
about the topic–as well as area ministers, County Board Commissioner Wayne Johnson and legislator, State House Rep. Bud Nornes.

“I’m the one who started all the hoopla. We’re here t0 see what we can do about this,” said Chet Nettestad, a pool hall volunteer, who was the spark plug that organized the meeting. “This is America…and we have people freezing to death.”

After more than an hour of wide-ranging discussion, only one conclusion was reached: There are no simple resolutions or quick solutions.

Identifying himself as one of the local homeless, Terry Haugrud said “we hurt, we’re cold…and we’re out there in front of you.”

Haugrud has sought help from various services, but basically, he said, “it comes down to money–if you don’t have it, you don’t get help.”

From his vantage point, Haugrud said average numbers of homeless–many of them staying by the river during the warm months –went from about a half-dozen to nearly 20.

As it was noted at the meeting: Homeless people aren’t necessarily bad people–but they’re in a bad situation.

Short term services are available, including local vouchers for a night or two in the Pelican Motel and meals, noted Kathy Jordahl, of the Pelican Welcome Place, which is a part time social services operation with “slim financial resources.” “But within days, we can shoot our whole budget,” said Jordahl, a community nurse at the Welcome Place.

Community Action director Liz Kuoppala said Mahube-Otwa offers varying social and legal services in the five county area. In most cases, the services aren’t triggered until the paperwork is done, including an individualized case management plan–which homeless people are sometimes unwilling to agree to, because of their concerns over privacy.

“Filling out paperwork is a barrier,” acknowledged Geri Langseth, Welcome Place board chair. But the applications are necessary because agencies must be accountable to government and other funding sources. “If you decline to do (the paperwork), you’re going to be homeless. These services are provided in cooperation with the government.”

Though it is little consolation to somebody out on the streets now, Kuoppala of Mahube-Otwa stressed that the most effective way to address the homeless problem is to “help people in a crisis situation before they become homeless.” Job loss, a car break-down, or other one time, short term crisis can result in homelessness.

Ideally, prevention is the most cost effective. Transitional services are available for up to 24 months, based on ability to pay, said Kuoppala, but individuals must “be on a plan”–which means paperwork.

“If we can resolve the crisis, stabilize (the situation)…the goal is to move people toward independence,” said Kuoppala.

The challenges and roadblocks can seem overwhelming. Following are just a few of the excerpts of the discussion at the Pelican meeting.

• From a social services standpoint, the definition of homeless is not only “those out there living in a cardboard box by the river,” said Veterans Service officer Charlie Kampa. The definition is extended to those who are without electricity or plumbing, and those who are “couch surfers,” moving between temporary shelters and homes.

• Public schools are obligated to provide services to children in families that are in transition or homeless, and federal dollars are available, noted Pelican Superintendent Randi Anderson. “So please, let us know if there are children out there.”

• More apartment units have been added in Pelican, and more are targeted for the future. The problem is, not many are available for lower income people.

• Many of the rental houses in Pelican are “sub-standard,” noted Welcome Place’s Jordahl.

• Transportation is a serious roadblock to finding assistance from social service agencies.

• Emergency funds for homeless are limited at the county level, said Otter Tail administrator John Dinsmore. “Society has changed,” he said, noting that more resources and services are available to families with children than for single adults.

• Churches, organizations and individuals in the Pelican area are quite charitable, noted Mark Dokken, a Rotary Club member. “There is money leaving the community,” said Dokken, noting that there are overseas contributions to orphanages; and a number of organizations contribute to Churches United in Fargo-Moorhead for homeless programs. The question is whether some of that generosity should stay closer to home.

• Homeless are not necessarily “bad people, but people in a bad situation,” said Terry Haugrud.

• An emergency fund is available locally, in large part through the support of local churches, noted Rev. Bob Sandstrom, Pelican Rapids United Church of Christ. Referrals usually come in from Police Chief Jeff Stadum. “Four years ago, it might have cost just 20 bucks for a tank of gas (to help out somebody passing through Pelican),” said Sandstrom. “Now, those emergencies have jumped to $200 to $300 a crack.” Increasing demands from people in crisis, and short term lodging cots, have strained a very limited emergency fund, he noted.

Housing issues raised at homeless meeting–including cockroach infestation at Mill Pond View Apartments

Available housing, or the lack thereof; and sub-standard housing in the Pelican area became a part of the discussion at the Oct. 12 meeting.

Residents from the rent subsidized Mill Pond View apartment high rise attended the session to complain about conditions at the facility.

Cockroach infestation has been experienced on numerous floors. Said one resident, “I’d rather be homeless than living with cockroaches.”

Mill View is owned by a private management company, based in the Twin Cities.

Steps are being taken with the management company, and some floors have reportedly been treated by exterminators. Liz Kuoppala of the Mahube-Otwa community action agency offered to arrange for legal services to take further action on issues at Mill Pond View apartments.