Northwestern Mental Health Center: Homelessness growing in Polk County

Times Report
Crookston Times

    What is a home? For some people, it’s more than the place we live. It’s the place we go for comfort after a long day. It’s more than where we sleep at night, where our head and heart feel safe. For some, it's where we’re free to let the weight of the world melt away from our bodies and minds. Thankfully, for most Minnesotans, having a home to retreat to is a basic human need that we rarely question.

    But what if we had to question the normative “home”? What if we find ourselves without a place to lay our heads at night? Nowhere to take our kids after school, keep our personal belongings, and prepare meals?

    Many people associate homelessness with people living and sleeping on the streets. However, unsheltered homelessness only accounts for approximately 25% of persons experiencing homelessness. Homelessness isn't always so obvious. Other forms of homelessness include sleeping in vehicles, tents, or abandoned buildings; sleeping in shelters or residing in hotels; couch surfing; and doubling up.

    Even before COVID-19 shook our world, the state of Minnesota reached a record high number of homeless people in 2018, according to a study conducted by Wilder Research. We saw a ten percent increase in homelessness between 2015 and 2018, and that percentage is higher in more rural communities.

    Trauma, poverty, domestic violence, lack of affordable housing or transportation, immigrant status, language barriers, unemployment, complex health needs, and racism are all common causes and effects of homelessness. Ironically, some of the recent COVID-related restrictions and executive orders meant to keep us safe from the Coronavirus may actually compound issues for unsheltered or soon-to-be unsheltered individuals and families.

    “Because of the pandemic, we’re seeing an increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness, as well as the severity of people’s situations,” says Michon Gilbert, Community Housing Specialist at Northwestern Mental Health Center (NWMHC). “The moratorium on evictions limits our housing options for people who are already unsheltered. And people are still at risk of losing their housing once the moratorium ends.”

    The good news? We have a wealth of community partners supporting people through these challenges. We're lucky to have local businesses and landlords willing to help people with a place to stay and food to eat. NWMHC is just one of many agencies focused on helping people find shelter, particularly as we head into the coldest season of the year.

    In December, The Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) awarded federal emergency solutions funding for a partnership between NWMHC, Tri-Valley Opportunity Council (TVOC), and Inter-County Community Council (ICCC) for homeless prevention and rapid rehousing efforts. The combined approach of these agencies allows for better outcomes and greater community impact. Not only are people getting help to find immediate shelter, but they also benefit from coordinated services and supports with a goal of long-term, stable housing.  This work builds on the more than 50-year relationship our agencies have serving together.

    “The point of this partnership is to reach more people who may be in need, and provide services and supports that meet them where they are at in the community. By offering supportive services like mental and chemical health services and other valuable life skills, people receive tools they need to be successful in achieving and maintaining permanent housing,” says Denise Gudvangen, Homeless Intervention Program Supervisor at NWMHC.

    This enhances existing programming to more effectively address the COVID-19 situation, the anticipated moratorium expiration on evictions, and serve more individuals facing financial instability – some of whom have never entered the mental health system or faced homelessness. It involves working with landlords, connecting people with resources, stabilizing living arrangements, advocating, and providing mental health and/or substance use clinical services when needed.

    “You have to look at the whole person, not just a single issue of homelessness. There are so many variables that can result in homelessness, and we want everyone to know that it’s okay to ask for help,” says Denise.

    Maria, who recently celebrated 16 months of sobriety, shares her story every opportunity she gets. With the help of multiple agencies such as NWMHC, TVOC, and the Crookston Housing & Economic Development Authority (CHEDA), Maria moved into a home in April, allowing her to gain full custody of her children.

    “Lots of people feel lost and ashamed and broken. They’re so used to being judged and rejected,” explained Maria. “But there’s always someone out there willing to listen. You just have to ask for help.”

    While we may not see the homeless encampments found in Minneapolis and other urban areas, it’s important to remember that homelessness happens right here in our communities. Someone we know might be experiencing homelessness, and we may not know it. The best thing we can do is to educate ourselves and understand that the causes of homelessness can be complex.

    “Michon and Cass at NWMHC became such an inspiration. They treated me like a regular person, not Maria the alcoholic. Just an everyday person who needed help and guidance,” said Maria. “Now, on the 5th of every month, my kids and I celebrate another month of sobriety. I still can’t believe we’re here. I sit here in this house and think about how blessed I am.”

    We’d like to send a special thank you to our local hotels and landlords including Crookston Inn, Cobblestone Hotel & Suites, and AmericInn in Crookston, and Fairfield Inn, EGF Inn, and Plaza Motel in East Grand Forks. In these hard times, we are thankful for our communities’ ongoing commitment to support people experiencing homelessness.

    If you have concerns about yourself, a loved one, or a neighbor, please call Northwestern Mental Health Center at 218-281-3940. If you are experiencing a mental or chemical health crisis, you can call our 24/7 Support & Crisis Helpline at 800-282-5005. Please know that you are not alone. We are in this together.

About Northwestern Mental Health Center

    Northwestern Mental Health Center (NWMHC) is a private, non-profit community mental health organization based in Crookston, Minnesota. Our organization provides a full range of mental health and substance use disorder services to individuals, children and families in northwestern Minnesota. In 2017, NWMHC was designated as one of six Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics in Minnesota. CCBHCs take a person-centered approach that looks at the whole health (physical health, mental health and social service needs) of the individual and provide a comprehensive set of services that promote recovery, wellness and trauma-informed care. NWMHC has more than 130 employees and partners with a team of professionals throughout the community to assure that those seeking assistance receive the best possible options for their care. For more information, visit