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Staying safe and warm: Homelessness programs have a big impact in Becker County

Aiming to do whatever it can for homeless people in the area, Mahube-Otwa has developed several programs over the years to target specific problems.

But it isn't getting any easier, said Marcia Otte, family development director for Mahube-Otwa community action agency, which serves the counties of Becker, Mahnomen, Hubbard, Otter Tail and Wadena.

The Detroit Lakes rental market is pretty stable, but in Mahnomen County, for example, it's not uncommon to see rental units that went for $600 a month a few years ago now costing $1,000 a month. That means $3,000 up front to cover first and last month's rent and damage deposit, and most people trying to avoid homelessness don't have $3,000 lying around. It can even be difficult for agencies to come up with that much money, Otte said.

To help people in that situation, Mahube runs the Emergency Solutions grant program, a one-time-per-family deal to help homeless singles and families with emergency housing, rent and deposits.

"You're responsible to find a place, we help out with either deposit or rent," she said. Often a church or the county will then pick up what Mahube didn't, effectively splitting the cost.

Mahube often has to get creative to meet those needs—that's why it partners with churches, civic groups, county human services and anybody else that can help stabilize finances for people in those situations.

Mahube was able to use the program to find housing for a family of six, with all four kids under the age of 5, that was living in a van in Detroit Lakes. The father was working at near-minimum wage at a restaurant and trying to pick up all the hours he could, so he had co-workers knocking on his van door in the parking lot if they had hours to give up.

The family, from out of state, got by OK in the summer, but by the time Mahube found out about them, cold weather was fast approaching, and an agency housing worker had to really scramble to find them a three-bedroom apartment.

"We don't judge and we certainly don't discriminate, no matter their sexual preference, creed, gender, ethnicity," Otte said.

Over the last nine months, 22 homeless people in Becker County have gotten help through the Emergency Solutions program.

Another 46 people in Becker County, in danger of falling into homelessness, got help through the family Homeless Prevention and Assistance program, which provides foreclosure prevention and rental assistance.

To qualify for Mahube homelessness programs, your household income must be under 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines, which is $24,120 for a single person or $49,200 for a family of four.

That covers a lot of the working poor, Otte said. "They work in the service industry or in retail where they don't get paid time off," she said. "If somebody gets an injury or gets sick and misses a couple weeks, it really impacts their ability to pay their bills," including rent or mortgages. "It's very hard to catch up if they fall behind," Otte said.

Otte is applying for a new $720,000 state grant for this program, but is concerned about losing out to White Earth and other Minnesota tribes, which are now eligible to apply on their own. But it all comes out of the same pot of money, so Otte is crossing her fingers that Mahube doesn't get cut too deeply. Previously, White Earth fell under the Mahube grant, a collaboration that worked well, Otte said.

Another program is for the long-term homeless, defined as four or more episodes of homelessness within three years or one year of continual homelessness, Mahube can provide ongoing rental assistance based on income. "You'd be surprised," how many people qualify for the (maximum of five years) assistance, Otte said.

One problem is finding housing that fits in with each county's "fair market value" rental rates, set by the federal Housing and Urban Development agency. If people are paying rent higher than allowed by HUD's formula, Mahube is not allowed to subsidize it to help the long-term homeless.

Another program helps young people, in their upper teens to age 24, who are alone in the world, get help through Mahube's (two-year maximum) Homeless Youth program.

"We find them at the library, the Adult Learning Center, the Community Center, the Boys and Girls Club," Otte said. Five young people from Becker County have been helped through the program since July.

"We help them find an apartment, maybe find a church to donate furniture and dishes, vouchers so they can shop," Otte said. Mahube often helps pay a portion of their rent. A housing worker checks up with them regularly. The young and the old are the fastest-growing homeless populations, she said.

Having seen some pretty rough times, the young people tend to be well-behaved neighbors, she said. "As a rule, they take it pretty seriously—they appreciate having a roof over their head and a safe place to sleep at night." Otte credits Karin Fritz-Staley, homeless liaison for the Detroit Lakes School District, for doing an especially good job with homeless youth in Detroit Lakes.

In another program, Mahube also has 12 units of permanent supportive townhomes, which provide long-term homeless families with permanent housing and case management. Opened in 2008 in Detroit Lakes, families can stay there until their youngest child turns 18.

Mahube also runs a Transitional Housing program that provides scattered site housing and supportive services to homeless singles and families. "We pay a portion of their rent," Otte said. "They pay 25 percent, based on their income." Maximum time on the program is two years, but that can be long enough for their finances to stabilize, and some choose to stay in their housing and pay full rent after the program ends.

Mahube's six housing caseworkers also have a lot of contacts and tools they can use to help keep people on the edge from falling into homelessness, whether it's coming up with emergency funds to fix a broken car and save a job, calling landlords to find an open apartment, or helping the hard-to-place, such as those with a criminal record.

A last-ditch effort is to refer the homeless to the Churches United for the Homeless shelter in Moorhead. If that's full, they might be referred to a shelter in Bemidji or the Twin Cities, Otte said. Sometimes all the shelters are full and people are just out of luck.

One reason Mahube runs so many different homeless-prevention program is because funding is grant-based, and Otte goes where the grants are. After 30 years on the job, Otte has grown the budget from $5,000 in 1988 to about $2 million now. "We have to do really good work," to keep those grants flowing. "If we start cutting programs, that's jobs—I take that very seriously," she said. She is keeping a wary eye on possible federal budget cuts that would hurt Mahube's ability to help those in need.

Mahube is also involved in a variety of programs like Meals on Wheels, heating assistance, tax-preparation services, all of which help people in need, including those struggling with homelessness.

Who knew, for example, that if a low-income worker can find a way to save $40 a month for three years, the state will kick in $120 a month—giving them $5,760, a nice chunk of cash, with more than $4,000 of that coming from the state's Family Assets for Independence program. The money can help them launch a small business, go to school or buy a home.

For Mahube, it's all about helping people keep a roof over their heads and find a path out of poverty.