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Cold creates long week for homeless shelters

Ice crystals form frost on the window of a home in Medina, Minn., as the area experiences subzero temperatures on Monday.

MOORHEAD, Minn. -- It takes guts to step outside in sub-freezing temperatures with the wind blowing in off the prairie.

It takes more guts to do it when you're a couple of days in from Florida -- with no job, two kids under 2 years old, and a roll-out mat in the pastor's office at a homeless shelter is the closest thing you and your children have to call home.

"People here are really nice," Christine Luetzow said Friday as she fed her 20-month-old daughter an apple in the lobby of Churches United in Moorhead.

The wispy-looking young blond woman and her two small children were taking a break Friday from their quarters in the pastor's office, the only place for them to sleep because the homeless shelter's family rooms are all full.

Sitting next to Christine is a man, not her companion, trying to catch an afternoon nap on the lobby chairs.

Luetzow, whose son is 7 weeks old, said she came to North Dakota from Florida seeking work on the advice of her father, a trucker. He cited the low unemployment rate and the legendary kindness of this area's residents.

"They've really helped me get situated," she said.

That kindness is being stretched to its limits these days at Fargo-Moorhead homeless shelters -- along with the various shelters' capacities. It's been a long week for staff and clients who are dealing with the first nasty Arctic blast of the winter.

The day off spent indoors with the kids during last Monday's national holiday might have driven many families in the metro a little stir-crazy, but it caused problems at Churches United. All of the children at the shelter and the residents who have jobs found themselves with no place else to go during the day -- on top of having no place else to go during the night.

"We just keep telling them we're proud of them hanging in," said John Roberts, Churches United's director of operations. He admitted there were a few disputes between clients that staff had to break up, but no real incidents. "It was an interesting day Monday."

But that was five days ago, and the cold snap hadn't let up by Friday.

Roberts said the shelter has been operating over capacity the entire time, with 81 people in the dorms, 22 in overflow and another 22 being bused to the area church that's sheltering people during the night.

"They can take up to 25, and we're considering asking them to take up to 30," Roberts said.

The New Life Center in Fargo is also over capacity, with 10 of its 117 residents sleeping in overflow beds, said New Life assistant director Rob Swiers. He called each evening's struggle to find places to put new clients "an exercise in creative problem-solving."

"I'm not sure where we're going to put more people -- I don't want to put them in the hallway," he said.

Churches United's policy is not to send anyone away unless they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

"Gladys Ray is asking us to be very careful of who we send over there," Roberts said of Fargo's only "wet house," adding that the alcohol-tolerant facility also operated over capacity during the week.

Gladys Ray Director Jan Eliassen said it's taken enormous coordination among all the shelters to survive the space challenges of the last week.

Roberts said one of the people who came seeking shelter at Churches United was sent to the hospital just in time to avoid losing his toes to frostbite.

He said many of the people who come in don't have appropriate clothing for the extreme cold temperatures, something the shelter also provides.

Swiers said coats, face masks and especially hand warmers are being used up at the New Life Center as rapidly as the beds.

"I know guys who are still out there sleeping in their cars," he said. "We try to convince them to come in, but it's always, 'I'll try it one more night. One more night.' "

At Churches United, Luetzow threads her way back to her room through ranks of men and women, all seemingly talking, eating and arguing at once.

She said she's going to look for a way to get the kids child care during the day, and she's hoping something opens up at the YWCA in Fargo. Then maybe she can look for a job, and a chance to go back and finish up her education.

"I have experience in sewing, painting, the fast-food industry," she said. "I can work-- there's a major abundance of opportunity here."