Rural Minnesota’s lack of shelters makes homeless an ‘invisible population’

A woman stands in front of a wall of pictures.
Cortney Zakauska stands for a portrait inside of her home in Marshall, Minn., last month.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Cortney Zukauska doesn’t let herself get too comfortable. Ask her what she seeks five years in the future and her answer is simple.

“Surviving,” she said. “And raising my babies the best I can.”

Pictures of her six children line the walls of the house she’s renting here. Being a mother is Zakauska’s first priority, and securing this home for her children four years ago was no small feat.

“It's really the first stability — I mean real stability — they've had,” she said.

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Zakauska, 32, had spent most of her adult life off-and-on homeless, bouncing around Minnesota from the Twin Cities to St. Cloud to rural towns like Gaylord and Sauk Centre, wherever she could find a ride somewhere to sleep.

In fall 2012, Zakauska was couch-hopping with three kids and one on the way after the house where she was living was condemned. An old friend offered her a place to stay in Marshall and she took the offer.

“I hauled me and three kids and what I could carry pretty much all the way out to Marshall,” she said.

A young boy lays on a bed and plays with a tablet.
Cortney Zakauska's son Jayden plays on a tablet on her bed in the living room of their home.
Evan Frost | MPR News

What began a promising fresh start quickly halted when the friend’s spouse got a job elsewhere. The couple moved, and Zakauska was facing homelessness again.

“I pretty much had to start over,” she said. “No car, no job at that point.”

There are no formal homeless shelters in Marshall, which is the case in most of rural Minnesota, where a third of the state’s population experiencing homelessness lives.

With shelters and other resources lacking or scattered, Minnesota’s rural homeless population relies on a patchwork of housing options — from motels to church basements.

Thirty-six percent of people experiencing homelessness in rural Minnesota are not staying in a formal shelter setting, compared to 22 percent in the metro area, said Michelle Decker Gerrard, senior research manager at Wilder Research, citing the group’s latest study.

The diffuse nature of where people experiencing homelessness in rural Minnesota live makes it difficult for researchers and policymakers to understand fully their challenges and how to help.

“Everything that we talk about is probably an undercount because it is such an invisible population in greater Minnesota,” Gerrard said.

A 2018 count from Wilder found 3,422 people who were homeless in greater Minnesota, which was defined as the state outside the seven-county metro area. More than 1,200 of those people were not staying in shelters. More than 1,100 were children.

Yet these hundreds of people are often unseen in rural towns. Samira Sheikh, a case manager at United Community Action Partnership in Marshall, said it’s built into the small-town way of life.

“You don't realize people walking around Walmart that they're homeless,” she said. “It's not so obvious. They're not on this street. Everyone knows everyone.”

Few shelters, lots of land

A single level motel with a few cars in front of it.
The Traveler's Lodge in Marshall, Minn., where Courtney Zakauska stayed in a room provided by United Community Action Partnership while she was experiencing homelessness.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The makeshift homeless shelter in Marshall is a Traveler’s Lodge motel. It’s known as “The Refuge” — seven rooms rented out continuously by United Community Action Partnership.

There’s usually a waiting list to get in. But when Zakauska needed a place to stay after her friend left Marshall, she found space there for a couple nights at The Refuge.

It was her, four kids and her boyfriend staying there, she said. “There's two beds, there’s a TV, a little mini-fridge, a bathroom. That’s about it.”

It’s a cramped space for a family, but such a room is tough to come by.

There are about 56 shelter beds for 275,000 people living in the 18-county southwest Minnesota region, said Justin Vorbach, coordinator for the Southwest Minnesota Continuum of Care. Those beds are consistently filled and are spread across 12,000 square miles, he said.

Getting to an open shelter space can be next to impossible for people without a vehicle. “Out here ... public transportation is very limited,” said Vorbach, who’s based in Marshall.

Not owning a car, Zakauska has used about every other mode of transportation to get to places to stay. “Walking, public transportation, relying on friends, hitchhiking — done that a few times,” she said.

This dearth of shelters isn’t unique to Marshall.

In McLeod County, 100 miles northeast of Marshall, 250 households come to the local United Way experiencing or nearing homelessness annually, said Hannah Tjoflat, the nonprofit’s executive director.

The county has two shelter spaces, according to Tjoflat. For everyone else, the closest shelters are in St. Cloud or Mankato — both over 50 miles away.

A jump away in Kandiyohi County, the shelters are full, too.

“I don’t know the last time I actually can say that we had an opening in any of our shelters,” said Cheryl Baumann, who works two counties away at Willmar’s United Community Action Partnership.

The other option for homeless service providers is putting people in hotels for brief stays. The McLeod United Way works with a group called HOMES, an acronym for Housing Options in McLeod for Emergency Shelter.

HOMES helps people with temporary housing so they can work with groups like United Way to become self-sufficient and find a long-term place to live.

One issue the group faces, Tjoflat said, is finding landlords willing to work with people experiencing homelessness.

“We need individuals to say, ‘I will rent my room out,’” she said.

Finding and maintaining a stable place to live is the ultimate goal behind social services for the homeless. And in Zakauska’s case, her connection to one case worker is what carved the path toward housing stability.

Grandma Jeannie

Two women talk to each other next to a car in front of a cornfield.
Cortney Zakauska says goodbye to Jeannie Antony, her former case worker, outside of the Community Action Partnership in Marshall last month.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Zakauska has known homelessness in the Twin Cities and several rural towns. While there’s more shelter space in the metro, there wasn’t Jeannie Antony.

“Jeannie saved my life,” Zakauska said. “And I don't say that lightly.”

She met the now-retired case manager shortly after arriving in Marshall. Zakauska’s kids now call Antony “Grandma Jeannie.”

It wasn’t an immediate connection between Zakauska and Antony, though. “We had a few struggles,” Antony said.

“Oh I didn’t like you,” Zakauska joked, “for like six months!”

Zakauska was dealing with years of built-up trauma, including the death of her mother. But she and Antony worked through it.

For Zakauska, having Antony as a consistent, positive force in her life was new. Grandma Jeannie guided Zakauska’s family as they moved into their temporary shelter at the hotel, then into an apartment and now their house.

Rural areas, while lacking in physical shelter space, have an advantage in that workers from different social services agencies can collaborate more easily and are more likely to know each other, Antony said. For example, she said she had relationships with local landlords and the domestic violence program.

“What we have out here is that open communication,” she said.

One of the biggest problems Antony has seen around Marshall, she said, is a lack of affordable housing — a crisis across the state, in urban and rural areas alike.

The state doles out millions of dollars for permanent housing support. An example is the Long-Term Homelessness Supportive Services Fund grant program, which helps individual people, unaccompanied youth and families with children find housing when they’re experiencing long-term homelessness or at risk of doing so.

According to the Department of Human Services, $13,820,000 was granted to six counties, county collaboratives and a tribal collaborative for fiscal year 2020-2021. In general, services for the homeless, especially shelters, are funded by non-governmental groups like nonprofits and charities.

Two women and a young boy walk to a car.
Jeannie Antony walks to her car with Cortney Zakauska and her son, Jayden, outside of the United Community Action Partnership in Marshall.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Still, Antony said funds for permanent housing are limited. The most comprehensive research, which is from Wilder, shows this to be the case: 50 percent of homeless adults surveyed in 2018 were on a waiting list for affordable housing and 56 percent of them said there was simply no housing they could afford.

Zakauska is acutely aware of the problems with housing in Minnesota. She has spoken publicly on her experiences with homelessness and tries to help others how she can. She said she knows multiple homeless people in Marshall today and she tries to offer them guidance.

“Here's direction to take,” she tells them. “What can I do to help? Do you need a meal? You need a friend?”

One message Zakauska is trying to spread is that homelessness has no profile. It can happen to anyone at any time.

“There is no guarantee you will have housing tomorrow,” she said. “Your house could flood. You could have a fire. You could suddenly lose your job and have no savings plan. Anything can happen.”

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