Homelessness: still an issue in region

MARSHALL – Homelessness in the area has trended down in the past two years, but Justin Vorbach, with the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, says there is still work to be done.

The Refuge, a shelter in Marshall, opened in February 2010. Its six rooms have been consistently full for the last four years, with a waiting list.

This year’s homelessness count, which took place Jan. 22 and included 18 counties in southwest Minnesota, showed that there are 8 percent fewer homeless households than in 2013 and 32 percent fewer homeless households than in 2012.

“The count went up from 2009-2012,” Vorbach said. “Part of it was likely the economic crisis, and in 2011 the Recovery Act funds went away. We lost funds for rapid rehousing and prevention programs.”

MHP coordinates the Southwest Minnesota Continuum of Care group that conducts the count. The Southwest MN CoC is a housing and services planning group that works to track need, secure financial resources and coordinate goals to prevent and end homelessness in southwest Minnesota.

“It’s just a snapshot; it’s just looking at one night,” Vorbach said. “What we do is in the weeks leading up to the night of the count, I send out emails to anyone I can think of who might be working with someone who is homeless.”

Twenty-seven agencies helped with the count this year, including community action agencies, public housing authorities, school homeless liaisons, domestic violence agencies, economic development department and law enforcement.

“We give these service providers and assisting volunteers about a week to ask people about their housing status on the count night.”

This year’s count found 115 homeless households, 75 of which included children. Of the 290 homeless individuals counted inside those households, 143 were under the age of 18, and eight of those were unaccompanied youth.

Individuals claiming to be head of the household ranged in age. Thirty heads of household were between 18-24 years old, 75 heads of household were 25-61 years old, and three heads of household were over 62 years old.

“Stereotypically, people picture a homeless person as a guy with a big beard pushing a shopping cart,” Vorbach said. “Only 10 to 20 percent of homeless people are chronically homeless and living outdoors. The other 80 to 90 percent are families with kids, the situational homeless who lost their job, got behind on rent or their car broke down and they couldn’t keep up.”

Everything from job loss and health issues, to domestic violence and divorce can lead someone to become homeless, Vorbach said.

“In terms of short-term homelessness you usually have people who are low-wage workers, and out here we have a tight rental market for affordable housing,” Vorbach said. “Seventy-six percent of Americans are living pay check-to-paycheck. All it takes is the transmission dropping out of your car, you can’t afford to fix it, you can’t get to work, these things can lead to homelessness.”

If you or someone you know is homeless or about to become homeless in Lincoln or Lyon counties, contact Western Community Action at 507-537-1416. For Yellow Medicine County, contact Prairie Five Community Action at 800-292-5437.