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Looking at homelessness

Deacon Justin Green with the Diocese of Winona addressed a group in Worthington Monday afternoon regarding homelessness and the lack of available and affordable housing in the community

WORTHINGTON -- What would you do if you knew a mother and her young children slept outside last night because they had no place to stay? What if you knew a teenage boy who was kicked out of his house and had no permanent address?

What would you do to solve the growing problem of homelessness in Worthington?

This may seem a question of insurmountable proportions, but if a few steps could be taken at a time, it isn't a problem without a solution.

That was the message Monday from Deacon Justin Green, a homeless and housing specialist from the Diocese of Winona. Green was in Worthington to facilitate a planning group representing a variety of service organizations brought together to address homelessness and its related issues.

The group, which began meeting about nine months ago, identified its mission as bringing people together to address homelessness and the lack of housing in the community.

With so many different areas to be addressed -- from available housing for large families and single-parent families, to single people, refugees and the mentally ill -- Green asked the group to select the two segments of the population it wanted to help first.

"I would really love to see something set up in this community for emergencies ... that aren't hotels," said Suzanne Belongia, representing Catholic Charities from the Diocese of Winona.

"We have homeless high school students in Worthington -- they go from one friend's house to another," added Sharon Johnson, director of the Nobles County Integration Collaborative.

"I'm seeing a lot of single males (in need of assistance)," said Kim Sheets, southwest Minnesota field representative for the Salvation Army.

Sheets said her agency spent a majority of its budget on food and hotels for the homeless this year.

"That's never happened before," she added. "We have spent all of our money until October 1 -- we're broke."

Programs offered through the Southwest Minnesota Opportunity Council are in the same boat, said Nichole Paladie with Catholic Charities in Worthington. In fact, their coffers to address homelessness have been empty since January. The Ministerial Association in Nobles County, which also keeps a fund to assist individuals and families in need, has run out of cash. Some churches have taken extra collections on Sunday morning to be able to help even just one family to get into temporary housing.

"People become homeless for a lot of different reasons," said Green. He asked attendees what they would do if they were suddenly given a bunch of money.

"I think we first need to figure out how big the problem is," said Jenny Andersen-Martinez, human resources director for Swift.

She estimated there are about 400 people in Worthington living in severely overcrowded housing -- some packing 10 to up to 25 people into a two- or three-bedroom house. In addition, there are 200 employees at the plant who live outside Worthington and would prefer to live in town.

Andersen-Martinez said with the expansion project at Swift, another 35 employees will need to be added, compounding the housing shortage.

Swift is offering to put newly hired employees into a local motel for a week, and also offers to pay the first month's rent (up to $500) for those people, but the problem is there are virtually no places in the community to rent.

Andersen-Martinez said an additional 100 apartment units in Worthington would go a long way toward addressing the housing situation. The key is that the housing must be affordable.

"It is true that if you build it they will come, but you can't always afford a ticket to get in," said Green.

Brad Chapulis, manager of planning and economic development for the City of Worthington, said the cost to construct a multi-unit housing project is approximately $130,000 per unit. To make it cash-flow, rents would have to be in the neighborhood of $800 per month -- a price not considered as affordable housing in Worthington.

While the ability to collect rent is certainly an issue, Andersen-Martinez said the cost to construct the number of units needed would be in the neighborhood of $14 million.

Green encouraged the group to come up with a set of goals, bringing a variety of individuals into the mix, and begin working on areas to address the homelessness and housing issue. A smaller group was identified Monday, and the larger group will meet again in approximately six weeks.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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