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Helping the homeless

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News Dickinson, 58602
The Dickinson Press
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Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

Several months after Dickinson's only homeless shelter ceased operations, a solution still hasn't been found and the city has no long-term plan as discussed during a Southwest Homeless Coalition meeting at Gate City Bank Friday morning.

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"We have, what I understand, some fairly pressing issues here regarding homelessness, along with trying to manage through an oil boom so I think this is a pretty special situation," Mayor Dennis Johnson said.

In a packed Community Room at the bank, community leaders and agency heads gathered to brain storm just how to bring some relief to an ever-growing issue.

After the city purchased two homes directly north of City Hall, with future plans to transform them into a parking lot, one was offered to be used as a temporary homeless shelter.

But, federal regulations and funding are proving to be major deterrents.

Chantel Zeller, branch office coordinator for the Dakota Center for Independent Living, who also serves on the Coalition, said it would take about $40,000 to $50,000 in renovations to bring the home's first level up to code with the Americans with Disabilities Act and much work to make it livable.

"What we have learned is that it is not an option for a homeless shelter," Zeller said. ... "currently there's a lot of empty space sitting around Dickinson because there's not an elevator to get to the top floor or there's no accessibility."

While several spaces are open in Dickinson, none have panned out thus far.

"It seems as though every option we find the door is closed fairly quickly because ... it's either a money issue, zoning or an ADA issue," said Darianne Johnson, executive director of the Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Center and a chairwoman of the SHC.

Zeller said while there are grants available, many of them require a building to be secured first.

"We're not saying that it's not possible, we're saying that with the use that is intended in a couple years, is it worth it to put that much money into the home?" Darianne Johnson said.

Dennis Johnson said the city wouldn't be interested in putting money into a possible shelter to make it ADA compliant, but would to make a space livable.

Dennis Johnson suggested the Coalition look into a waiver of some federal requirements due to the issue's time-sensitive nature.

"This is a fairly unique situation that western North Dakota's in and we have this influx of people," Dennis Johnson said. "I think it's going to continue for some time -- housing is short, motel rooms are short, costs are going up. I understand the rules and the regulations and they apply to a normal situation, but we're not in a normal situation."

Zeller said she will look into the idea to see if it's an option.

Officials are having a difficult time gauging the size of the area's homeless population and the demographics.

Dennis Johnson said the city hadn't had to worry about homelessness until this summer.

"The city is confronted with issues it hasn't had to worry about for decades," Dennis Johnson said. "There's lots of issues I'd say we don't have a long term plan for."

Homelessness issues are spilling into other area communities as well.

"There's actually hotels in Bismarck with overflow from here," Zeller said.

Shelters in Fargo and Grand Forks are also receiving overflow people from Dickinson, she said.

The Mott, Hettinger and Bowman areas are also having similar issues, Zeller said.

Dickinson residents Larissa and Lon Brunken were renting a home near Roosevelt Elementary School, but must move out as the home has been placed on the market.

The Brunken's must find alternative housing for themselves and their 2-week-old daughter Maisy, 5-year-old Emma and 9-year-old Austin.

With high area rents and limited availability, the Brunken's are unsure what they will do, but packing up and moving to California to stay with family for a while is an option.

"I don't know if we'll have to sell everything, but when you've got kids, they come first," Larissa said. "We're just hoping a miracle will kick in."

The SHC is seeking to form both short and long-term plans and at both August and Friday's meeting, formed committees to research facets of a shelter, from funding to regulations and locations.

No official decisions were made at Friday's meeting.

The SHC will meet again on Oct. 15 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at the same location.

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