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A look at homelessness in southwestern North Dakota

Following a detailed presentation by the Southwest Homeless Coalition, the City of Dickinson approved $25,000 in funding to launch a pilot project aimed at supporting a homeless shelter with the purpose of helping better serve southwest North Dakota's itinerant population. What does homelessness look like in southwestern North Dakota?

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Once an individual is homeless, safety and health become a substantial concern. Homeless people typically have limited access to health care, find themselves food insufficient, face potential violence and added stressors, live in unsanitary living conditions that can lead to prolonged health risks and most importantly for North Dakota — they face exposure to extreme weather in the winter. (Dickinson Press File Photo)
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Tony Nordahl has been a resident of Dickinson for the past seven months, but when he arrived he found himself in a situation that more than 7 million Americans do each year. The reasons people end up homeless varies as much as the millions of people who find themselves itinerant. From the lack of affordable housing in a given area to unemployment, from mental health issues to low wages, many people find themselves at the mercy of the elements and a community's good will.

During a public hearing by the Southwest Homeless Coalition on Dec. 21, the City of Dickinson heard Nordahl's own story of struggle as well as the testimonies from health care providers.

“I've benefited enormously from Badlands Human Services and other resources. When I showed up here, I had two pairs of clothes — that’s it. No wallet, no ID, nothing like that,” Nordahl said, dressed in a blue button-down dress shirt. “Within four-months time, I had a wallet in my pocket with a driver’s license, Social Security card, birth certificate, solid housing (and) employment. It was just the start that was rough.

“I was just wondering. I was just headed East. I had nowhere to stay so I would sleep on the side of the road or under bridges. Apparently that’s not socially acceptable so I would end up in jail… A shelter would have been a nice option. I’m looking at all the resources that you have here in Dickinson, it’s insane. I’ve been homeless in several states — California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii; I’ve never seen anything like this before. (It) completely changed my life around within four-months time. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, if they had a shelter, they would have every need met here in Dickinson.’”

Once an individual is homeless, safety and health become a substantial concern. Homeless people typically have limited access to health care, find themselves food insufficient, face potential violence and added stressors, live in unsanitary living conditions that can lead to prolonged health risks and most importantly for North Dakota — they face exposure to extreme weather in the winter.

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Linkage between homelessness, trauma

Over the past year, Homeless Case Manager Wendy Moffett of Badlands Human Service Center has worked with countless homeless individuals and families, and has found that there is a connection between trauma and homelessness. Many homeless families that are headed by single women have a history of trauma; they’re also vulnerable to violence, victimization and re-traumatization, Moffett said. They experience discrimination, marginalization, isolation, PTSD, depression and substance use higher than the national average.

“A history of trauma is essentially something that many in society live with and it presents itself in many facets on a scale of very mild to very severe, but being homeless, in of itself, can affect each and every one of us,” Moffett said. “Our goal as a service providers is to minimize and reduce the amount of time that a family or individual is spent being homeless to also help with minimizing some of that trauma, and we do this by using housing first programs and employment assistance, targeted rental and housing subsidies as well as mental health case management and substance abuse case management.”

Barriers to housing

Moffett noted that some of the main barriers to homelessness that she encounters daily include the lack of necessary documentation and identification — which are required for housing — and the turnaround time for processing those housing applications.

“Anyone that’s ever lost a Social Security card knows that obviously we don’t have a walk-in Social Security administration here in Dickinson, so it takes time to either order it online or send in a written application and typically that time is around two weeks," she said. "Most homeless individuals that I’ve worked with usually will have some, but not all of their documentation. So this is an additional issue that puts them in a bad position while waiting for housing to go through, because all of these documents are needed when applying for any type of Hud Housing.”

Other barriers to housing include the high cost of living in Dickinson and surrounding areas, unemployment, underemployment, behavioral health (mental illness and/or substance abuse disorder) or an unexpected adverse life event, Criminal past is also another barrier, Moffett said, especially if the individual’s criminal activity happened recently and the severity of the crime(s).

Need for immediate housing

Jessica Odermann, director of Badlands Human Service Center, spoke from an executive’s standpoint on the funding available to help those in need when it comes to homelessness.

“So we have a very small pot of money called, ‘Wraparound Funds,’ that we have in our biennium budget as a state entity and that is it. That is all we have for emergency funds, and this year, alone, we’re on track to deplete those funds before the end of the first year of our biennium,” Jessica Odermann said. “... Just in the last two weeks, I’ve had about six requests. So I’m facing questions like do I approve a bus ticket for this person or the $24 we need to get this person a Social Security card or birth certificate. This person needs a housing application; they need maybe their first month’s rent.”

Commissioner John Odermann invited Moffett to speak on behalf of the Southwest Homeless Coalition and inform city officials of the current homeless situation facing southwest North Dakota. He also shared his perspective as the manager of mission and ancillary services at CHI St. Alexius Health Dickinson Medical Center.

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“We have situations at the hospital when we have a patient that is being discharged they need Hud Housing, but they’re in that two to four week time frame where they qualify for the housing but they either don’t have the documentation (or) the application that needs to be processed and they’re not appropriate for them to stay at the hospital anymore. But there are times where they stay at the hospital for longer than is probably appropriate because of the fact that there’s no place for them to land. There’s no landing site for them,” John Odermann said. “And so, a shelter locally that had a housing-first approach that would provide a landing site to where they could stay and have a roof over their head until that application is processed is a definite need. We have case managers at the hospital that spend days trying to find placement for people.

“... If we weren’t spending so much time trying to find a place for these people to land, we could actually spend the time on case management and trying to get them the resources to serve their behavioral health, their employment needs, all those different things. Once we meet those Maslow’s hierarchy of needs… it’s a lot easier for them to get back on their feet.”

Purpose and goal

Having a shelter in place also ensures an individual is meeting not only their physiological needs, but their overall mental health especially for those who have behavioral health issues and are under medication, Moffett noted.

“I believe that in utilizing a trauma-informed client-centered approach is the most successful and if we did have those services available by having a shelter it would allow us as community providers to be able to get them connected with those resources that they so desperately need to get back to being productive members of society,” she said.

Though Moffett has seen plenty of success stories through her work, the biggest obstacle is not having a shelter for people to turn to until they work out their challenges, she said. Many years ago, Moffett worked as an employment placement specialist — which is one of the most visited spots by homeless people.

“I had a female come into the agency looking for work. She was very well-dressed, had an outstanding resume and she dropped her resume off and I thanked her. She came back the very next day, checking the status of her application and then she pulled me aside and she said, ‘Wendy, I’m homeless,’ and she said, ‘I’m sleeping in my car.’ I never in a million years would have dreamed that this very well-dressed woman was homeless, but she was. That situation always resonated with me,” she said, adding, it did have a successful outcome.

Short-term benefits of a shelter

With the amount of effort that local agencies expend with finding individuals housing, a shelter would help reallocate resources and time spent effectively among those organizations, Moffett noted. In return, a shelter would help stimulate the local economy by allowing people become productive members of the community.

Other short-term benefits of a shelter would reduce family trauma, mental illness and substance abuse associated with homelessness; reduce recidivism and the potential for crime due to desperation and the need to survive; and provide a short-term solution resulting in a quicker and more stable resolution of homelessness.

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Looking ahead

As the new year approaches, city officials will meet again to discuss additional funding on a long-term basis. Moffett noted that a two-site solution would be best to enable the sheltering of individuals and families or youth. This would entail looking at multiple sites available in Dickinson that could be repurposed, she added.

Currently, Oasis Motel in Dickinson has rooms available and works well with the Southwest Homeless Coalition members to provide short-mid term housing, Moffett remarked in her presentation to the commission. Following various testimonies from city and community leaders, the commission approved a motion of $25,000 to help launch a pilot project aimed at supporting a homeless shelter to help better serve southwest North Dakota’s itinerant population.

The Southwest Homeless Coalition consists of Badlands Human Service Center, CHI St. Alexius Health - Dickinson, Community Action Partnership, Dakota Center for Independent Living, Dickinson Police Department, Dickinson Public Schools, Dickinson VA Clinic, Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Center, Hope’s Landing, Human Trafficking Navigator, Military Outreach, North Dakota Continuum of Care, Pioneer Peaceful Haven, Salvation Army, Soldier and Family Readiness Program, Southwestern District Health Unit and United Way.

“I believe that our community agencies are absolutely phenomenal at what they do, which is probably one of the reasons why many have often said, ‘Are there even homeless people here?’” Moffett said. “But there are.”

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