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SMOC seeks grant dollars to continue homeless work

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news Worthington, 56187
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

WORTHINGTON -- In the last 18 months, the Southwest Minnesota Opportunity Council has assisted more than 140 individuals (49 households) who were either homeless or in danger of being evicted, all thanks to a grant provided by the Minnesota Housing and Finance Agency.

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A Family Homelessness Prevention and Assistance Program (FHPAP) grant was first awarded to SMOC in 2011, with $70,000 divided up by quarters over the two year program.

Unfortunately, the grant funds ran out before each quarter ended, leaving SMOC to find alternative sources of financial help for what, primarily, are single mothers with young children in need of a roof over their heads.

"In the past 18 months, I turned away 30 households because of a lack of funding," said SMOC Community Services Coordinator Paula Boehrs. "Twenty of those households were families with children; the other 10 were single adults or couples."

In partnership with Western Community Action, Boehrs said the FHPAP grant dollars from the current cycle were used to help get people in danger of being evicted caught up on their rent, or help a homeless individual or family with the first month's rent and security deposit on an apartment or house.

While her client load is based on the four-county SMOC territory of Rock, Nobles, Pipestone and Murray, Nobles County has the highest numbers of homeless individuals and families. In fact, of the 49 households served in the last 18 months, 30 of them were located in Nobles County.

They come from all walks of life, and Boehrs is quick to point out that these people aren't transients -- law enforcement assists those individuals.

"I see a good cross-section of folks -- Asians, Africans, our home-grown Black folks, Caucasians, Hispanics -- (people) of all colors. It's just across the board; most of them are Hispanics or classified as Caucasian," Boehrs said, adding that she's had some Native American clients as well.

During the winter months, Boehrs sees more people who are in danger of being evicted as opposed to those who are actually homeless.

"We have a lot of folks in town that are doubled up -- there are two or three families living in one house," she said.

Those facing eviction may have lost a job, had their hours cut or just fell behind in their payments.

"A lot of times their budgeting skills are not very good," Boehrs said. "They're surprised by a $300 heating bill, then a utility bill and rent and it's like, 'What do I pay?'"

SMOC has resources to assist people in danger of being evicted, and can help mediate with a landlord and assist individuals in setting up a payment plan.

"If they were behind $1,100, I wouldn't be able to help them, but maybe we can find some other sources," Boehrs said. "We try to do our best so that people don't become homeless."

In instances where the people are actually homeless, SMOC helps in finding them a place to go. Oftentimes, it's a larger city with a homeless shelter, like in Sioux Falls, S.D. If the people don't have transportation to get there, SMOC has funding available for bus vouchers.

"I also have motel vouchers to put them in a motel for a limited stay," Boehrs said, adding that a family can get vouchers, provided by the Salvation Army, for up to five nights in a motel. "Hopefully, by the end of that time, they've got someplace to go."

Just in the last year, Boehrs said 19 households have been placed in motels because they had nowhere else to stay.

Each year, Minnesota does a "Point in Time" survey to evaluate the levels of homelessness in every county across the state. In January, SMOC received its report, showing that 25 households in Nobles County were identified as homeless. That compared to two households in Murray County and none in either Pipestone or Rock counties.

In 2012, the Point in Time survey showed 43 households were homeless in Nobles County.

While it may appear as though numbers of homeless families declined in the one year period, Boehrs said that may not necessarily be the case.

"It could be reduced, or those folks just didn't show up some place to be counted," she said, adding that the survey is usually conducted on a day in late November.

Boehrs said SMOC will seek an increase in FHPAP funding for the next budget cycle. Grants are expected to be awarded for the new budget year by July 1, but Boehrs said they usually don't get their first payment until mid-August. They rely on dollars from the United Way and other agencies to help fill the gap.

The latest grant request is for $77,000, which is a 10 percent increase over the last two-year grant award, but Boehrs knows it still likely won't be enough to meet the needs locally. Just in the last 12 months, SMOC has had nearly 100 requests for assistance.

In addition to finding or maintaining housing for individuals, SMOC also provides case management, which includes assisting people with budgeting, finding a place to live and teaching tenant rights and responsibilities. And, through the state's Bridges to Benefits program, Boehrs said she can enter a person's family size, income level and children's ages and the program computes a list of assistant options they may be eligible for.

Without the FHPAP grant, Boehrs said homeless individuals would have to rely on the county or look to churches for assistance, and more people would likely end up on the street or doubled up in homes.

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

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