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Homelessness: the ‘invisible problem’ for rural communities

By COLTON KEMP, Faribault Daily News

Jan 3, 2024 Updated Jan 9, 2024

Often homelessness is portrayed in the media with shots of tightly packed tent cities filled with drug addicts. But local experts say this stereotype could mislead the public into thinking the problem doesn’t exist in rural areas.

Community Action Center Community Resource Manager Becky Ford said, in Faribault, homelessness doesn’t take the same form as in the large cities.

“When most people think of homelessness, they think of people sleeping on the sidewalk or living in encampments like they have in Minneapolis,” Ford said. “The truth is rural homelessness looks different.”

Ford pointed out that homelessness doesn’t always mean someone is without shelter for the night.

“There may be a few instances of people living in their car or tenting down by the river in Faribault,” she said. “But the majority of cases we see involve people doubling up with a family member or friend, sleeping on the floor or a couch. Multiple families sharing bedrooms and living spaces in order to make ends meet. It’s somewhat of an invisible problem.”

Last year, the Fed reported that just over 1 in 5 rural Americans couldn’t afford their bills for the month. That’s why many people are just an emergency away from experiencing homelessness, said social worker and Community Action Center Housing Advocate Jorie Beyer-Hansen.

“Contrary to misperceptions, homelessness isn’t due to lack of effort to find a job,” she said. “It can happen to anyone. Many factors can play into a person becoming homeless: untreated mental illness, a medical diagnosis resulting in lost wages, car accident or injury, etc.”

She added that the majority of those experiencing homelessness don’t find themselves in the situation overnight.

“Homelessness is often the result of a domino effect,” she said. “It starts with someone losing a job, falling behind in rent. And before they know it, they are facing eviction, which makes it difficult to find another place to live.”

The county would need another 1,330 affordable homes to meet the needs of the population, according to 2023 data from the Rice County Housing and Redevelopment Authority. The number was determined by defining an “affordable home” as one that cost 30% or less of the occupant’s household income.

If someone loses their housing and doesn’t have anywhere to go, there are resources out there for them. For example, women and children can sometimes stay at Ruth’s House to get back on their feet.

“We go back to a statistic from Rice County: 180 families are at risk of becoming homeless,” Ruth’s House Director Suzanne Fox said. “Most of them are head of household, which usually means women. So, that’s not necessarily people in tents living under bridges. Living in cars is not all that uncommon, though.”

However, space is limited at Ruth’s House. And there aren’t any shelters for men in Faribault.

Select nonprofits and governmental authorities around Rice County have established housing programs and implemented changes aiming to address the unmet need.

The Rice County Housing and Redevelopment Authority allows those experiencing a lapse in shelter to be bumped up the waitlist for public housing.

“The waiting-list preference allows us to serve the people with the most need as fast as possible,” Rice County Housing Director Joy Watson said.

During the pandemic, the county was one of several in the state to receive emergency housing vouchers for non-elderly adults with disabilities. While the program ended in September, Watson said there is enough funding to continue helping those already on the program.

Community Action Center is a local nonprofit that operates out of Northfield and Faribault that provides assistance to those experiencing a lapse in housing. The CAC’s website states it provides more than 3,000 nights of shelter to families and children in need.

The housing advocates at CAC advocate for those being evicted, provide short-term and long-term housing on a case-by-case basis and connect people with additional resources.

The CAC also partnered with two other groups, Healthy Community Initiative and the Northfield Racial and Ethnic Equity Coalition, to establish the mobile home community fund. This Rice County program is meant to help mobile-home owners afford lot rent, repairs and maintenance.

CAC recently opened Hillcrest Village in Northfield, a townhouse development that includes a mix of emergency, transitional and long-term affordable housing. There has been conversations of CAC building townhouses for emergency housing in Faribault, but they would likely be contingent on state grant funding.

Three Rivers Community Action Program also offers programs including rent financial assistance as well as resources to help break down related barriers like transportation and tenant-landlord negotiation help.

Even with safeguards in place, there are still people who slip through the cracks.

The Salvation Army’s Faribault office and the Faribault Police Department provide vouchers for hotel stays.

The Police Department now has officers who are dedicated homeless liaisons, and there is a policy for when to clear the few homeless encampments that do pop up. Police Chief John Sherwin said his officers were only called to clear one encampment in 2023, which was on state property and dealt with by state troopers.

“The city’s policy is that, before a camp is cleared, we post notice,” Sherwin said. “We also attempt interventions by offering resources to camp occupants, including referrals to Rice County community-based coordinators and our nonprofit partners, such as Three Links and the CAC. These resources have connections to emergency housing and shelters outside of Faribault/Rice County, as we lack those resources in the form of a larger shelter.”


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