WORTHINGTON — When the Southwest Minnesota Opportunity Council opted to end its emergency housing services program in Nobles County two years ago, a neighboring agency stepped in to take over.
Now, United Community Action Partnership has opened an office in Worthington due to the overwhelming need to assist homeless individuals.
Located at 1039 Oxford St., Suite 1, in the strip mall directly west of Schwalbach Ace Hardware, the office is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, excluding holidays. Local case manager Wendy Vorakoummane said the office assists both walk-ins and referrals from other agencies, and can be reached at 727-1401.
Vorakoummane joined the 13-county UCAP agency in November, focusing her efforts on emergency housing services in the four-county SMOC service territory. She was housed in the family services office until UCAP secured a space of its own in Worthington. The new office opened Aug. 17.
“The need is so great over there that we just needed to do it,” said Michelle Jensen, UCAP’s Family Services Manager, who is based in Jackson. “We also hired a person to work with our refugee program who is Karen-speaking.”
Muhser Hser will assist refugees at the Worthington office on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with the rest of her week spent in UCAP’s Marshall office. Hser will administer UCAP’s refugee services, including a resettlement network program, vulnerable care services and refugee resettlement.
The Worthington office also provides help to individuals seeking access to medical assistance and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), emergency shelter and energy assistance. Individuals are referred to SMOC for the programs that agency has long provided in the county.
Jensen said having a UCAP office in Worthington will help meet the needs of the community.
“When we started providing services there, we did emergency shelter with a local motel, but we didn’t have any contracted rooms for people who didn’t have a place to stay,” Jensen said. “We currently have four contracted rooms with a motel, and they’re always full.”
Emergency shelter needs arise for various reasons, from domestic violence to people losing their housing or being evicted, job loss and even health issues.
“Since I’ve started, I’ve seen several homeless people in Nobles County,” Vorakoummane said. “I’m also seeing success stories.”
Vorakoummane works with individuals to find not only permanent housing, but a source of income. She meets multiple times per week with them while in emergency shelter to work on those goals.
“As long as they are working on their goals, we can extend (emergency shelter) on a week-by-week basis,” she said, adding that the goal is to have them moved out of emergency shelter in less than 30 days.
In one instance, Vorakoummane assisted a family of five that had been living in their van.
“I housed them from shelter to permanent housing,” she said.
Another client was homeless after being released from a care facility, and Vorakoummane said his success story is “one of the most amazing ones so far.” He now has a job and permanent, stable housing.
“He’s doing so well his appearance, to me, wasn’t even recognizable,” she shared.
“This particular person was homeless for at least three years in another community,” added Jensen. “Wendy helped him obtain housing, he is employed full-time, he is healthy and his mental health is in a good place.”
UCAP is a 501(C)(3) non-profit corporation with access to a variety of state, federal and private funding streams. The agency recently received a $1.6 million grant to establish the COVID-19 Homeless Assistance Program (CHAP). Through CHAP, people can apply for financial assistance to help cover past-due expenses to be able to remain in their home.
Jensen said applicants may include those who have lost jobs, had their hours reduced or can’t find employment due to the global pandemic, or who have had to leave the workforce to care for school-aged children in distance learning settings.
“That program launched Aug. 24, and our agency has received over 300 applications already,” she added.