The Refuge – A Fresh Start needed more than ever during winter

MARSHALL – If you are feeling the effects of chilly mornings at your house, imagine if you were waking up under a tree or in a tent.

“People who are homeless can’t survive living in their cars, campers, sheds or storage units,” said Pam Russell, a Refuge – A Fresh Start board member.

The Refuge – A Fresh Start is the only emergency homeless shelter in southwestern Minnesota.

“We’re doing what we can to help people get back on their feet,” said Tiffany Sillers, part-time case manager.

Homelessness has a variety of guises. Maybe people are “couch-hopping” or staying with family or friends, Russell said. Having an extra person around “becomes more tense and less of a viable option as the holidays approach.

People don’t want someone just staying with them all of the time as they try to prepare and participate in holiday activities, so they get asked, or told, to leave.”

Another reason why a person might have to leave someone’s home is if the place the person is staying is under housing assistance rules – “that puts the friend at risk. They can’t have additional people living in the home,” said Sillers.

The Refuge has a lease/rental agreement with a local motel to rent five rooms a month and add one additional room during the winter months, totaling six. “There’s almost always a waiting list too, but we can’t afford to use more rooms than that,” Russell said.

Sillers said people with children are given the use of hotel rooms. Between Feb. 22, 2010, and Sept. 1, 2013, Refuge participants were comprised of 104 children, 95 adult males and 90 adult females.

“Families are prioritized,” Sillers said. “We try not to uproot them. Single people or couples are referred to St. Cloud or Mankato. They are given a one-way ticket.”

There are many reasons people find themselves homeless, Sillers said. Affordable housing is scarce, sometimes people can’t find a job that pays enough wages because they are undereducated.

“It’s hard to find housing if they have any blemish on their financial record or if they have a criminal record,” said Siller.

“People are ashamed or don’t want to admit they don’t have a home,” Russell said.

Another factor in the homelessness equation is the uncertainty of a U.S. farm bill, Russell said.

“Budget reductions to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), or what’s commonly known as food stamps, affects all persons being able to provide food for themselves/their family, including the homeless population, and has been part of the farm bill,” she said.

The Refuge currently funds its operation with contributions from the faith community, businesses, and individuals; events and fundraisers; United Way of Southwest Minnesota grant award and a grant award from the Minnesota Department of Human Services – Office of Economic Opportunity.

“The challenge of this (state) grant is that for The Refuge to receive $60,000 a year for two years, it must be able to provide matching funds, dollar for dollar, from other sources, to request the monies from the state on a monthly basis,” Russell said.

Future plans include having a physical location for The Refuge. Land has been donated to them on Birch Street, but money is needed for the building and for operating expenses.

“We would love to build,” said Russell.

For more information visit