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Homeless population under-counted, social service experts believe

Hubbard County has an estimated 100 homeless people in its midst, including one person spending nights in the stairwell of a downtown Park Rapids store. And those numbers are believed to under-represent the extent of the homeless population.

The estimations were the result of a 24-hour "point in time" survey conducted Jan. 28 over 12 northwestern counties of the state. The entire count for the region was 200-250 homeless, including 81 children.

The consortium of counties has embarked on a 10-year plan to end homelessness. As part of this overall strategy, Mahube, along with Wadena and Ottertail counties, has applied for a $600,000 grant over the next biennium through Minnesota Housing to help families avoid homelessness.

Mahube representatives said in the past two years, the tri-county agency has assisted 530 households with back rent payments, overdue utility bills, rent deposits and foreclosure prevention where possible, just to keep families in their homes.

"We have to take a hard look at that assistance," said Mahube director Leah Pigatti of the foreclosure assistance. "Will it really help the family or just postpone the foreclosure?"

If it's the latter, the agency will likely put its financial assistance elsewhere, she said.

The January homeless survey brought disturbing news to the Hubbard County board Wednesday. The survey was conducted as part of a U.S. Housing and Urban Development nationwide initiative to determine the severity of the homeless problem.

Hubbard County was found to have five unsheltered households and nine households that were doubled up with family or friends in that 24-hour period. The state considers this type of living arrangement to constitute homelessness, although the federal agency does not.

Counting the homeless is tricky, Wendy Thompson told the board. Thompson is a consultant to the Northwest Minnesota Continuum of Care group studying the issues.

Children eluding foster care, bouncing from home to home, might be considered homeless; "couch hopping" adults moving from place to place might also be included.

"It's called the hidden homeless problem because we don't see lines of people at soup kitchens or in alleys in rural areas," Thompson said.

Governments need to shift their strategies from managing the problem to ending it, she suggested. Many initiatives can be employed including helping people on the margins with rent, utilities, transportation, education and job opportunities.

And homeless people tend to burden other areas of social welfare, needing more expensive crisis services such as medical and mental health care, visiting emergency rooms more frequently, needing longer hospitalizations and requiring or requesting incarceration. And kids who grow up homeless have a drastically increased chance of becoming homeless adults, Thompson warned.

The board signed a resolution in support of the group's efforts. Many worried that the worse the economy gets, there's increased likelihood the homeless will no longer be a hidden problem.