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Homeless in Wadena County; OTWCAC takes stock of sheltered, unsheltered homeless

What does it mean to be homeless in Wadena County?

The definition is broader than the unflattering stereotype of the drunk derelict on the street.

Dana Patsie and Diane Leaders of Otter Tail Wadena Community Action Council (OTWCAC) said people who don't fit the stereotypes can end up in a situation where they find themselves displaced from stable housing and adequate utilities.

OTWCAC recently conducted a survey to get a picture of homelessness in the area. People who stopped in at service agencies including the food shelf, social services, veterans' office, the counseling centers, the Wadena police and sheriff's office, the crisis center, the HUD/HRA office, Head Start, childcare resource and referral and the workforce center between Wednesday, Jan. 25 and Friday, Feb. 3 could participate in the survey about where they stayed the night of Jan. 25.

Patsie and Leaders said that because the survey only gets to people who stop in at these agencies during that particular week, it is not considered an accurate count of the actual number of homeless people in the area.

"If they seek help a month before or a month after, we don't catch it," Leaders said.

One of the main purposes of the "Point In Time" survey is to distinguish "sheltered" from "unsheltered" homeless.

Sheltered categories include staying with family or friends, staying in an emergency shelter or transitional housing, or staying in a motel or hotel.

Wadena County does not have a shelter, so people who need a place to stay may be put up in a motel paid by an agency such as OTWCAC or the police department.

Patsie said a lot of people in this area, as indicated by the majority of surveys she got back, find themselves in a situation where they have to "double up" with family members or friends, and that counts in the technical definition of homeless but sheltered.

"Those people really are homeless because they're staying in overcrowded homes, in couches ... there's always issues with trying to share expenses and cooking is always an issue when they're living with other family members," she said. "We don't see those folks because they are in a sheltered situation, but they really are homeless."

Patsie and Leaders said people in this situation may have all their belongings in a vehicle, or have their belongings in boxes because they do not have a stable housing situation to unpack and may risk losing their important belongings and documents.

"It makes it hard to keep employment, to maintain services," Leaders said. "If you just try to picture living without a place of your own, it complicates everything else you do."

Receiving mail, keeping a regular job and getting the kids to school can be an issue, they said.

Then there is the unsheltered category. It includes not only sleeping outside or on the street, but staying in a vehicle, in a camper, in a storage unit or garage, in a fish house, in an abandoned building or in a building without adequate utilities.

"We were concentrating on those unsheltered numbers," Patsie said.

Having one's utilities cut off does count in the definition of unsheltered homelessness.

"In Minnesota, in the winter time ... it could be going without water, it could be going without heat," Leaders said. "We actually have people that live in buildings that don't have utilities."

The survey also asks if they are veterans or currently in the military, if they have family with them, how long have they been continuously without their own place and how often they have been without their own place in the last three years.

"Those results from the survey are ultimately reported back to HUD, and HUD provides funding to our communities through a variety of different grants. And those grants help serve the people that are homeless," Patsie said. "We might get more funding for rental assistance or emergency motel money. So we're always trying to get as many surveys back as we possibly can, because that demonstrates that there's a need in our community."

For Wadena County this year, Patsie said she received 23 surveys back and six of them were unsheltered.

Last year, she had received 42 surveys and eight were unsheltered.

Leaders said it was possible that the sheltered numbers in winter 2011 compared to winter 2012 could have been affected by the June 17, 2010 tornadoes which displaced some people in the area.

Patsie said there was also a count in July, when there would probably be more people living in campers, but it was at the time of the state shutdown which hindered the process.

Separate from the OTWCAC Point In Time survey is information from the schools indicating that there are significantly more children this year than last year who lack adequate housing.

Last year, there were 14 students from among all four of the school districts from Wadena County.

This year, Patsie said, there are 43 students between already only two of the four districts who have reported back so far.

"They have to report back number of homeless children, children that are unaccompanied without parental figures, children that are living with friends, children that are living in a homeless situation ... and how many are living in a place without heat or electricity or utility," she said.

Leaders said those numbers are also from a point in time.

"I think we've had some housing issues, and how homeless is identified, takes into account people staying with their friends," WDC elementary principal Louis Rutten said. "There may be some more housing issues that have arisen over the past year."

He said it could be partly due to the tornado and a shortage of available housing compared to before the tornado, and that it could be because the numbers might have been under-reported in the past.

Patsie and Leaders said there is a law that if a family with kids lets a school district know they are homeless, the school district has to work with them to make sure the kids can be transported to school.

Leaders said the McKinney-Vento Act is a piece of legislation to support people who are homeless and to get them back on their feet.

"Our agency receives funding through the state ... to help us help others, help people that are either doubled up or unsheltered," Leaders said.

Leaders said the agency is building a better network of support.

"We are, for the first time, able to offer transitional housing to people," she said.

Leaders and Patsie said some of the causes of homelessness include no employment, losing employment, underemployment, health issues that affect ability to work, domestic violence and a shortage of affordable housing. They said that people with long-term physical or mental health issues can stay homeless for years.

Leaders said that in other counties, there are pictures of homeless people who give permission to show their faces and show that the stereotypes of homelessness are not typical of the reality.