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Housing project benefits those without homes

DETROIT LAKES - Homelessness in Detroit Lakes and the surrounding area isn't characterized by panhandlers begging for loose change on street corners or "bums" taking refuge in city parks.

Instead, the homeless are hidden, staying with friends or family until times get better.

Becker County and Mahube Community Council hope to put a dent in the homeless population with the ongoing construction of the West River Townhomes.

When the 12-unit facility is completed in September or October, it will provide help to those categorized as long-term homeless -- defined by the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency as those without a home for the past year or homeless for at least three times in the past four years -- and get their situation stabilized.

And it's not a temporary solution. Guy Fischer, housing and economic development coordinator for Becker County, said that as long as residents stay eligible through Mahube, it's permanent housing instead of a shelter where the homeless would only be able to stay for a short time.

Becker County will own and manage the complex, and Mahube will provide case management that includes selecting tenants and providing support.

"We want to focus on families with dependent children," Fisher said.

Marcia Otte, family development coordinator at Mahube, said there is a need to help stop the cycle of long-term homelessness in Becker County. She said there are 50 households in the county from June 2006 to now that are categorized as being long-term homeless, with 181 households in Hubbard and Mahnomen counties during that same time period that comprise Mahube's reach of services.

There is a need for the West River project as there isn't a solution to house the homeless in Becker County. Right now, only low-income housing exists.

"This is the first that is geared to the homeless," Fischer said.

And the tenants will get federal assistance through the Section 8 voucher program that will cover all rent for some. The out-of-pocket costs for the rest will be minimal, according to Otte.

She added that the role of Mahube is to help connect residents of West River to needed help. "We connect them with resources," she said.

"It might mean that they need to be retrained or have more education," said Mahube Executive Director Leah Pigatti.

Otte said that some of the education efforts include certified nurse assistant training and courses in carpentry.

One of the biggest obstacles that the homeless face is getting back on their feet temporarily and then ending up without a home again, said Fischer.

"What we're trying to do is to break the cycle of homelessness," he said.

As part of being placed in West River, residents have to agree on working with a case manager to make sure they have the resources necessary to make sure they are stable enough to hold on to permanent housing.

That task can be difficult at times, especially if resident have to cope with mental illness.

"Many of them have mental health issues," Otte said.

Those mental health conditions make it hard to keep a job.

Otte said that some could hold down a job for a short time, until their various illnesses start to cause issues in the workplace, making it hard to maintain steady employment.

So Mahube will step in and link residents with mental health services when needed.

"We play to each client's strengths and needed goals," Pigatti said.

Otte echoed those sentiments and said that Mahube need to help people maintain their success and to make sure they do not get evicted from West River.

Besides the case management aspect, the project is also environmentally friendly. The units will be heated by a geothermal system that circulates water deep into the ground to keep a constant temperature instead of relying on a furnace or air conditioner to burn through electricity and natural gas.

In addition to being green, the geothermal climate control systems will lead to lower utility bills.

The Environmental Protection Agency said that such systems could save close to 50 percent on heating and cooling costs, depending on the situation.

A waiting list will be set up shortly, said Otte. But a timetable for when applications will be accepted is not available as of yet.

For more information on the West River Townhomes, contact Otte at 847-1385.