Bemidji approves first 'wet' homeless shelter

By the time winter hits northern Minnesota, Bemidji will have its first homeless shelter that allows chronic alcohol and drug users.

The Greater Bemidji Joint Planning Board voted Wednesday to award a permit to the Nameless Coalition for the Homeless to start a 16-bed downtown shelter.

The new facility, known as a "wet" shelter, is designed to care for people who have chronic substance abuse problems, said Nameless Coalition Chairman Reed Olson.

Olson said that group, especially in Bemidji, is terribly underserved.

"It's literally a life and death issue," he said.

Since the coalition began planning the wet shelter in 2013, two homeless people have died each winter. Olson said those deaths spurred the coalition's efforts.

There are already two homeless shelters in Bemidji, but those facilities have "no alcohol" policies. The People's Church will house people who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but they don't have space for everyone.

"It's just not enough," Olson said. "We have between 20 to 30 people who suffer from homelessness and substance abuse in Bemidji."

Olson is finalizing the purchase of the former Headwaters Unitarian Universalist Fellowship building on Sixth Street in Bemidji's downtown. The church building will cost $90,000 and another $30,000 for renovations. When operational, it will house 16 men, and has separate space for two women.

"We should be up and running by November at the very latest," he said. "Then the real work starts."

The shelter won't allow drinking on the premises. Any alcohol or drugs brought to the shelter will be stored in a locker and returned.

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