Residents in east-central Minnesota, alarmed by the sight of neighbors living in cars, tents and storage sheds, have vowed to create a safe space for people hit hard by the economic downturn.
Community members plan to open a homeless shelter in rural Pine City, with the help of private donations and a $60,000 grant from the state's Department of Human Services. They say too many people are forced to live outside or in unsafe conditions. The closest shelter for adults is 90 miles away, and the closest family shelter is an hour away in Cambridge.
"In the middle of winter, they're sleeping in their cars. These are mothers and fathers and single parents," said Eugene Biever, a deacon at Immaculate Conception Church in Pine City, about an hour north of St. Paul. "There needs to be something better than this."
A HIDDEN PROBLEM
Homelessness in rural areas is often described as a hidden problem, but the residents of this town of 3,200 say they're in a unique position to help. Someone who loses housing might try to avoid detection, whether out of shame or desperation, but a neighbor usually finds them. And unlike in urban areas, Pine City residents said, they feel like it's their personal responsibility to make sure that everyone has a safe place to sleep.
An effort to count the number of homeless people in the county in January found 92 residents lacked shelter, Biever said. Local churches and social service agencies tried to help by providing money for a night in a motel or money for basic needs. Some residents allowed people to stay at their homes for a night or two. Biever parked his RV at a friend's house and invited people sleeping in tents to move in.
Residents began talking with each other about how they could do more to help. They formed a discussion group and were surprised by what they learned.
"A lot of people knew of a homeless person or two, but they didn't realize everybody else knew of another homeless person or two," Biever said. "And when we all got together, we started to realize, wow. We're finding out there are a lot of homeless people."
Local churches, agencies, charities, elected officials and about 100 residents began meeting regularly. They decided to open a shelter, and they settled on a name: A Place for You. The group applied for nonprofit status, which was granted two weeks ago. They hope to purchase a building this month and open a 20-bed shelter by November.
The shelter will include beds for single men and women and a separate room big enough to house a family of five, Biever said. Shelter guests will be allowed to stay for up to 90 days in most cases. The community will use that time to work with each person to help with job and housing searches.
The group has begun raising private donations and plans to send a letter this month to members of neighboring congregations to ask for support. The nonprofit has budgeted for 2.5 full-time positions, which could be split among several people. The shelter will also rely on a team of at least 8 trained volunteers to handle day-to-day tasks.
RESIDENTS HOPE OTHER COMMUNITIES FOLLOW SUIT
Residents said the effort has changed their community. Lynette Forbes-Cardey, of Pine City, has been involved in the project for months. She said she always wished she had room to allow homeless people to stay at her house and felt frustrated that she couldn't do more to help people who fell on hard times.
"Many other people I know felt the same way," she said. "They have a pull toward helping the homeless, but are not able to actually provide shelter themselves."
Forbes-Cardey said creating a new shelter is a lot of work, but she said the community figured it out by sharing skills and resources.
"It's almost like a big game of positive Jenga," she said. "Things are falling in place in a good way."
Residents said they hope the shelter will show other rural communities that they can come together and help eliminate homelessness. The Wilder Foundation estimates that one in three people who are homeless in Minnesota live outstate.
More information about A Place for You is available on the group's Facebook page.