A community responds
WORTHINGTON -- When children and their parents were living in motel rooms, people in the community stepped up to offer a hot meal. When parents couldn't find a place to rent, agencies gave of their time to help in the search. When the homeless had nowhere else to turn, a church opened its doors.
And when a community realizes there's a problem, they work together to find a solution.
The homeless issue has not gone unnoticed by Worthington's city leaders or by the community's largest employer, yet putting up bricks and mortar takes both time and money.
Mayor Alan Oberloh said the city has talked with both private contractors and individuals at the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership for "at least the last four years" to get market-rate or subsidized housing projects started in the community.
The need hasn't diminished.
After the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid on JBS Swift & Co. in Worthington in 2006, Oberloh said the employment base at Swift has shifted.
"A lot of transients have come to town, (and) there's been a shift from home ownership to rental," he said. "The city is well aware of the issues, but the thing that has been hard to swallow is how does the council and I sit down with entities and tell (the taxpayers) they need to subsidize the properties $200,000 or more to help pay for someone else's home?"
Building housing projects isn't the only solution, Oberloh said.
"We would like to see a better job of educating people on what part of their income should be used on housing. If we can encourage home ownership ... I think the community is better off as a whole," he added.
As for needs of transitional housing, or even a homeless shelter in Worthington, Oberloh mentioned the former Home of Hope that served transient populations in the past. The philosophy behind Home of Hope was that once transients got on their feet and established, they would return to give something back for future tenants. Oberloh said that never happened, and it put the home in "dire straits."
What about a homeless shelter?
"I think Worthington might be a little small for something like that," said Oberloh. "Not to say there aren't people sleeping in a car or motel."
If a homeless shelter would be pursued, Oberloh said he doesn't view it as solely the city's responsibility.
"The city is interested in doing more and more ... collaborating with other agencies," he added.
The city has already been collaborating with JBS Swift and continues to work with funding sources such as the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, said Brad Chapulis, the city's manager of planning and economic development.
DEED recently awarded the city a small cities grant to help finance remodels of existing owner-occupied and rental properties in the Cherry Point Park and East Side Addition. The grants are for people with low to moderate income.
Approximately $600,000 became available through the program in August, but the demand far exceeds the grant monies available, said Chapulis.
"What we're trying to do there, hopefully at the halfway point of the grant program, is that we can illustrate the amount of demand back to DEED and seek more funds," he added.
Another grant the city received, this one through Minnesota Housing Finance Agency (MHFA), will be used to rehab homes in need of repair and offer them to first-time home buyers with low to moderate income.
In addition to rehabbing existing homes, plans continue to develop for new construction. With a 43-unit expansion at The Meadows of Worthington and another senior housing complex planned by the city, the hope is that more single-family homes will be available to rent or to purchase.
"There are projects that are definitely on the drawing board and other projects that we are continuing to explore," said Chapulis.
Jenny Andersen-Martinez, human resources director at JBS Swift & Co., said the local processing facility is awaiting word on possible tax credits to construct a 24-unit, low- to moderate-income housing project in collaboration with the city. If the MHFA grants the credits (Andersen-Martinez said they hope to hear from the agency within the next month), construction would begin in spring 2009.
In addition to those plans, JBS Swift is also discussing two other projects, including both modular homes and multi-family unit projects. All three projects combined would create between 68 and 92 new units in the community and cost millions and millions of dollars.
"One of the big challenges is knowing exactly what the need is," said Andersen-Martinez. "We've got overcrowding ... we've got people living in other communities. We don't know how many actually want units, (but) we'll put a big dent in the problem with those three projects."
Even with new construction, Andersen-Martinez said more work needs to be done -- including educating people on the benefits of home ownership and working with many of Swift's refugee workers, who lack the credit history required to make a major purchase, such as a home.
"Seventy percent of our new employees are refugees -- most of them are happy to just have a roof over their head and not be oppressed and persecuted," she said. "They just don't have enough credit to qualify (for a loan)."
Two community liaisons employed by Swift are working with the Ethiopian and Burmese refugees to educate them about housing, building credit and financial planning, Andersen-Martinez said.
Representatives from local and regional agencies that deal with housing and human services have gathered in the community once a month for nearly a year to share knowledge about their role in serving people in need and to brainstorm solutions for homelessness and housing in Worthington. Their next meeting will be 11:30 a.m. Oct. 29 in the Atrium's meeting room. The meeting is open to the public, and all suggestions are welcome.
At the same time, work is moving forward to establish Love, INC (In the Name of Christ), which would serve as an entry point for the homeless and those in need of assistance in the community.
"There is no one entry point -- that's the problem," said Sharon Johnson, coordinator of the Nobles County Integration Collaborative.
Right now, people are directed from one agency to another and sometimes back to where they started. Love, INC could alleviate some of those issues.
"We're all trying to be helpful, but it's not an efficient system. It gets to be very complicated and very discouraging," Johnson said.
Love, INC is not a new concept. In fact, several members of the Worthington Ministerial Association recently visited a Love, INC program in Sheldon, Iowa, which was formed about five years ago.
The Rev. Jim Krapf of Westminster Presbyterian Church was a part of the group that observed the program in action.
"It is a way to integrate a community's caring through its churches and social agencies," Krapf said. "Their mission statement has the word to transform -- they're working at how to empower people to become more self-sufficient (rather than) simply an entitlement that keeps people dependent."
"One of the things that I like about Love, INC is that it enables the individual local churches to mobilize their congregation in a way that is a good fit for their different talents and skills," added Johnson.
As the city, agencies and organizations do their part to alleviate the strain of homelessness, community residents can also make an impact. Just ask Norma Von Holtum.
Von Holtum and several other women from St. Mary's Catholic Church were called upon one summer night in August to prepare a meal for about 20 people who had taken up temporary residence at a local motel. They made hot dishes, gathered fruits and vegetables, bread, milk and juice and delivered it to Catholic Charities to be served to those in need, many of whom were children.
"It took me by surprise that there were homeless people (here)," Von Holtum said. "I was kind of aghast. I was sure I could find enough women to prepare a meal."
In all, about 10 women helped that night, and other church groups and volunteers made meals other nights as needed.