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​Homeless, not hopeless

by Tessa Torgeson | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Culture | December 14th, 2016

A woman spends another restless night shivering on a concrete floor, the only source of comfort a rubber mat, thin scratchy blanket and a lumpy pillow. It offers temporary refuge from the bitter Fargo winter.

A man found passed out in an alley Downtown is whisked away in an ambulance to the ER, then the hospital, to be treated for alcohol poisoning and dehydration. A day later, he is discharged into the street where he drinks more alcohol to quiet the voices he hears because of schizophrenia. As he stumbles down Broadway, a passerby calls police. He is taken to detox, then transported to jail for public intoxication and unpaid fines for petty offences.

This is the typical vicious cycle of someone struggling with homelessness and alcoholism in Downtown Fargo. The same group of homeless people cycled through the criminal justice system for citations such as loitering, public intoxication, and panhandling. They typically were unable to pay their fines.

On December 8, The Downtown Community Partnership, The City of Park, Homeless Health, Downtown Neighborhood Association Fargo Police Department, and Downtown Fargo Business Improvement District to lead the first community forum, “Homeless not Hopeless,” at City Hall. With over fifty community members in attendance, it was the first forum in a series of discussions about homelessness in downtown Fargo.

A Wilder research study found that homelessness has decreased by 32 percent in the F-M metro. Yet homelessness continues to be a problem, as the Wilder point-in-time survey found that 591 men, women, and children were homeless in Fargo on an October night. This number is an under-representation of the number of homeless individuals because it does not reflect those who are incarcerated, in treatment, or staying with friends or family. Although people who are homeless are spread throughout the metro and rural areas, there is a high concentration downtown because it is the hub of services. With the bus station downtown, people can easily access services like Homeless Health/ Family Health Care, Salvation Army, day labor companies, a mental health center, and low-income housing.

“I kept seeing the same people being cited and causing problems downtown, thinking we had to do something different,” said Jessica White, Downtown Resource Officer for the Fargo Police Department. White partnered with Homeless Outreach Coordinator Jillian Struxness to address this problem in a cost-effective manner that also improves the quality of life of homeless individuals.

Struxness and White created a program Downtown where homeless individuals can access resources, receive case management, look for housing, clean up litter and do other service projects to work off fines for minor offences. Currently, eleven people participate in the program and two have already graduated.

The Downtown Neighborhood Association has donated litter grabbers, food, and offers encouragement for the program. A representative on the panel said, “We consider homeless people as part of the neighborhood, we want to be a part of the discussion for their safety as well.”

Struxness collaborates with social service agencies and businesses downtown to facilitate a foundation of trust and respect. “I feel fortunate to have the ability to meet people where they are at and form these partnerships,” Struxness said. She responds to calls and complaints about people who may be causing problems, panhandling, or intoxicated. Struxness de-escalates the situation by offering services, compassion, hope, and reducing the need for expensive interventions by police or emergency services.

The panel addressed concerns by community members and business owners who were unsure how to deal with people asking for food and panhandling. One audience member complained that panhandlers frequently ask her for money and pester her. She quipped, “Are you telling me if someone comes up to me every day I am supposed to ask their name instead of call the police?” While the panel encouraged people to call the police if they feel unsafe, they reminded the audience that studies show most panhandlers are not homeless. They encouraged people to donate money to organizations that serve homeless people rather than give money to individuals.

The panel discussed how panhandling is a sign of a systemic issue of poverty, many individuals have faced historical and interpersonal trauma, addiction, and mental illness. While building a relationship with homeless individuals can be difficult, Struxness and Officer White have worked hard to build trust. They joked that people who used to flip off or swear at officers now wave and greet them on a first-name basis.

This new approach to addressing homelessness transcends warm fuzzy anecdotal stories. It saves lives. People froze to death in Fargo after being turned away from shelters, from intoxicated or lack of shelter. They also lacked opportunities for long-term housing due to criminal charges related to addiction or a program requirement of sobriety.

A Fargo Housing Authority building called Cooper House offers permanent supportive housing to individuals who are chronically homeless and have chemical dependency issues. These programs operate according to the research-supported “Housing First” model.

Housing First states that housing is a fundamental human right and individuals will be more equipped to address their addiction, mental health issues, and other struggles once they have a stable environment. A 2013 Cooper House Impact Report found there was a total of $204,140 savings in costs for 66 residents who lived at Cooper House. For those seeking temporary shelter, Gladys Ray Shelter serves guests who are under the influence.

Gladys Ray guest and partnership participant Richard (last name omitted) participated in the panel. He said, “It’s a place to go on a night like tonight. A lot of people are out there drinking. I struggled with that myself.” Thanks to his determination and the new program, Richard is now looking for an apartment.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of affordable housing in Fargo. Struxness states someone would have to make $14.15 an hour, which is nearly twice the minimum wage. Other barriers to finding housing including bad credit, poor rental history, and a criminal background. The partnership is aware of this problem and looking for incentives for landlords to tenants facing these barriers, and provides tenant education to increase people’s chances of success once they secure an apartment.

Despite the lack of affordable housing, community members continue exploring solutions to improve the quality of life for people who are homeless and ensure Downtown is a safe, fun place to work, live, and play. They want to fix the old broken system, offering hope and support. Now on the verge of having his own apartment, panelist and Gladys Ray guest Richard is living proof of the partnership and Housing First’s effective approach. 

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