Advocates say homelessness is a growing problem

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 17, 2003

Collette Turcotte, director of Community Action in Albert Lea, once turned away a family of six from the shelter her organization runs. The father looked at her and said &uot;let me show you where we live.&uot;

He took her to his pickup, and showed her a pile of blankets and pillows in the bed.

&uot;I just went home sick to my stomach not being able to help someone like that. We’re going to have more of those days,&uot; Turcotte said.

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With funding cuts in many areas and a recession, she expects a lot more people to be turned away from her door as homelessness increases and resources dwindle. She said for the county to assist a family, they have to have 30-day residency in the county. So much of the responsibility falls on Community Action.

The Community Action shelter held about 67 individuals last fiscal year from July 1 to June 30; half of them were children. About 110 people were given some form of assistance, like a first month’s rent to help them get back on their feet, job training and educational opportunities. But 23 people were turned away. Even though the new fiscal year started three weeks ago, they still haven’t received the funding they regularly receive from the state. Turcotte said they have enough to last for the rest of the year, but the funding is necessary.

The Minnesota Office of Economic Opportunity has 24 percent less funding to give shelters than it did last year, said Patrick Leary, executive director of OEO. He said the figures haven’t been tabulated for all counties yet. He anticipates the same problems as Turcotte. He said that often homelessness is unseen, and that’s part of why funding is dwindling.

Kathy Sickles, transportation and housing coordinator for Community Action, knows the feeling of turning away families. She said sometimes their eyes well up with tears and they say they understand, but sometimes they get angry.

&uot;You look them in the eye and you say how sorry you are,&uot; Sickels said.

Homelessness is something many people don’t think happens in a small town like Albert Lea, Sickels said. While it’s more obvious in metro environments where the occasional cardboard house or panhandlers can be seen, in small towns it’s more hidden.

&uot;You’re not underneath bridges to see people sleeping there,&uot; she said. But she said it’s something that happens to many folks for reasons beyond their control.

&uot;Some of these people that are homeless, they had great jobs and they have families. But major things happened in the family or something major happened at work,&uot; she said.

She said sometimes a large doctor’s bill or a car accident can drain someone’s finances. &uot;Then they end up on the street once they lose everything they have.&uot;

&uot;The saddest part is when you never get to find out if they found a place,&uot; she said.

(Contact Tim Sturrock At tim.sturrock or 379-3438.)