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Helping the homeless: Southwest Homeless Coalition works to help those in need

On a single night in January 2015, more than half a million people in the U.S. were considered homeless, according to a recent study. However, this does not mean there were 500,000 people sleeping in boxes on city streets, because it can include ...

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iStock photo

On a single night in January 2015, more than half a million people in the U.S. were considered homeless, according to a recent study. However, this does not mean there were 500,000 people sleeping in boxes on city streets, because it can include those in shelters, transitional housing or those who are moving from couch to couch in order to survive.

The homeless coalition steps in to help those in southwest North Dakota who are struggling the most and may just need a helping hand or a small push in the right direction to turn their lives around.

The homeless coalition is "the brain-center to communication" among community organizations that vary from Community Action Partnership and Stark County Social Services to Badlands Human Services Center and Southwest District Health Unit, said Joe Wanner, chair of the coalition.

Coalition members meet once a month to plan how they can "fill in the gaps" for some of the things the social programs cannot do on their own. They often exchange ideas on the best way to help someone.

Wanner said they help people on a regular basis, but the numbers are lower than they were during the oil boom. He also said homelessness is as visible as one may believe.

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"There's a lot more of that in this country than what a guy believes that there would be because homelessness is kind of a hidden thing in most communities," he said. "They're very well at hiding and tucking themselves in places until they actually get help."

When many people think of a homeless person, they may think of someone who lives on the street or in their car. Wanner said it so much more than that.

"If you're depending on somebody else for your housing, if you're sleeping on somebody's couch, if you're sleeping in your car-there's very different variations of how you can consider someone homeless," he said. "When you don't have an address or you have no opportunity to have permanent housing, you know, that would be considered homeless."

Wanner said many people who are considered homeless in Dickinson came to the area because of potential job prospects that did not work out, while others just have "run into a streak of bad luck."

He also said it can sometimes be hard to raise funds to support projects related to homelessness because the topic is not easy for some to grasp.

"Homelessness is hard to explain," Wanner said. "The mentality of the regular people that work hard every day is that 'Why don't they do the same?' and sometimes they don't get that opportunity, something put them there. Are there some other issues that are self-made on that? Obviously, ... but sometimes it's not always that way."

Wanner said while he may be the chairman of the coalition, the real work is done by those who see homeless people on a daily basis.

"I'm just the chairman," he said. "Those are the amazing people, the ones that are working with these programs and working directly with those people. Number one they have a heart of gold and then they know how to handle it."

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While he has never been homeless himself, Dickinson Police Capt. David Wilkie said he is passionate about helping others in need.

"I really feel for the homeless," he said. "It's something that's important to me. I'm in a lot of coalition groups and a lot of them don't have near the meaning that this one does to me."

Wilkie said he got involved with the coalition last fall and has enjoyed working with everyone.

"I enjoy the group of people that I deal that are in the coalition," he said. "I enjoy the work that we do and it really gives me a lot of satisfaction to see the help that we can give. One of the things that we found out is that we're so much stronger as a coalition than we are as individuals. We all bring something. We can all offer some kind of help. But when we all get together and talk about it and strategize and plan, we can really do a lot of good stuff."

Local churches have similar programs, Wanner said, but their programs are often for more temporary help. One way the coalition can help someone is by simply helping them get some form of an ID, which is needed to get a job. He said the coalition tries to help someone find housing and a job that is best suited for them, which can help get people on the road to a better life.

"They try and find them places where they can fit in, and then trying to find some housing for them is usually the big thing," Wanner said. "There's programs there, but the thing is you need a job. There's income-based housing in Dickinson now, so once you've got them working and into an apartment they're on their way to making themselves better."

Income-based housing was not available during the oil boom, which sometimes meant people could not afford to put down money for a deposit even if they had a job. Now that rent prices are starting to come down and income-based housing is available, that has become less of a problem, Wanner said.

Some people may be able to pay their rent, but they can't pay their heat, while others may not be able to afford food, so the coalition can step in and brainstorm how to help someone in those types of situations. Wanner said prevention is also key.

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"If you start early with some of your problems, they don't have to get you to homeless," he said. "Prevention and some counseling is going to get you to a better life."

Wilkie said that sometimes people who have mental health issues or an addiction can "fall through so many cracks" because it may be too hard for them to get the help they need because they can't afford insurance or cannot get a job because of their issues.

"They are not homeless by their own choice," he said. "They're homeless by the medical or mental illness that they have, which they have no control over after a while and they can't get any help for. So, they're just totally stuck. They really couldn't make things better for themselves even if they tried."

He said he feels the worst for that group of people because it's hard for them to get help; additionally, sometimes people are not willing to help because they believe homeless people may not add a lot to society.

"If people just looked beyond whatever their issues are, whether it's their mental health or their addictions, and saw them as the real people that they are (they'd see that) everybody has something to add to society," Wilkie said.

Related Topics: HOMELESSNESS
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