Agency, church tackle homelessness

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 8, 1999

The Freeborn County Community Action Agency once again turned its attention towards the plight of homeless in the area at a meeting last night.

Friday, October 08, 1999

The Freeborn County Community Action Agency once again turned its attention towards the plight of homeless in the area at a meeting last night.

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&uot;We have heard so much about people who are homeless and people who are at risk of becoming homeless,&uot; Colette Turcotte, CAA director, told the 25 residents who attended the meeting. &uot;Today alone we had three families – two mothers with children and one couple – come and ask us for help.&uot;

Held at at Christ Episcopal Church, the meeting was organized by Turcotte and representatives from the church.

&uot;We are here to pool our intellectual and spiritual resources as well as material,&uot; said Alicia Erickson, senior warden of the church. &uot;When one part of the body of Albert Lea is hurting, we are all diminished.&uot;

Families who are currently without permanent housing and those who have recently survived the situation were on hand to talk about their experiences. Turcotte hoped that listening to their stories would help those in attendance to brainstorm some solutions.

The point of the meeting was not to discuss ways to create affordable housing in the community, but rather to address the immediate needs of the homeless in the community.

&uot;We’ve really got to think outside the box here,&uot; Turcotte said. &uot;This is not just dialogue here tonight. We need to see what we can do.&uot;

The Community Action Agency has the money to help people get into a home, but it can only be used for permanent housing.

&uot;We have the money, but here’s no permanent housing to go with the money,&uot; she said.

Networking topped her list of achievable goals for the group. With such a demand for housing, many landlords forego advertising and rely solely on word of mouth to rent out vacant apartments.

Turcotte urged those present to start their own network to find available homes. However the next challenge comes with finding the family who needs the home, Turcotte said.

With many homeless families moving from one friend’s house to another or sleeping in their car, it’s often difficult to track them down once an apartment is available, Turcotte said.

She suggested a voice mail system would give families in need an opportunity to receive messages about housing opportunities.

Another challenge arises when a family tries to get assistance through the Department of Human Services. Many of their programs require a 30-day residency before assistance is offered. However, with families living in cars or basement floors, there’s no way to prove that they have lived in the community for 30 days.

Also, some of the programs just don’t cover all the expenses, leaving a financial burden on the family. &uot;If families are paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing, they’re going to run into some financial troubles,&uot; said Gary Hird of Legal Services.

&uot;We took a poll and some of our families were spending 50 to 60 percent of their income on housing – some as high as 85 percent,&uot; Turcotte said.

With the tight housing market, landlords have much of the control and can charge higher amounts for rent and up-front expenses.

Turcotte said many of the three bedroom houses are being rented for $500-$700 a month. Landlords require first and last month rent plus a deposit. That means families need to have between $1,500 and $1,700 just to get into a house, she said.

Plus those who smoke, have pets or larger families may have a harder time.

&uot;With less than 1 percent vacancy rate, landlords can afford to be picky,&uot; as long as the landlord does not display prejudice against any race or religion or other protected classes, Hird said.

Newcomers to the area also face the challenge of not having an established income and references.

Sen. Pat Piper, D-Austin, suggested concerned citizens, employers and church leaders should form a core group within the community that would vouch for some of these new workers who relocate to the area.

&uot;It doesn’t cost anything to vouch for someone and it makes the worker feel welcomed in the community,&uot; Piper said.

Residents at the meeting also suggested finding funds to buy a home for an additional short-term shelter, but Turcotte said it’s not enough.

&uot;They’re band-aids – wonderful band-aids – but in two to three months that family still doesn’t have a home,&uot; she said.

The group also discussed using buildings that are paid for with tax dollars, such as the Armory, as temporary shelters in the winter.

But even with the temporary solutions, there will still be families who lack permanent housing.

Residents gathered felt there needs to be more education to raise awareness about homelessness in Freeborn County. But lack of awareness of homelessness in the community is only part of the problem.

&uot;Another problem we run into is people want to ask, ‘Are these people worthy of my help?’&uot; Hird said. &uot;I don’t think – given the economy and the wealth of this community – that anyone should be without a roof over their heads.&uot;

While Turcotte said the community is very generous, there are still some who are reluctant to help families if they think they are responsible for their situation. She admitted some people do make some bad choices, but others are simply a victim or circumstance. Regardless, she said they all deserve shelter.

&uot;Something’s got to be done, just out of caring,&uot; Turcotte said.

Residents who are interested in helping to ease the plight of homeless in Freeborn County can call the Community Action Agency at 373-1329.