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'One crisis, and it snowballs': Homelessness and the push to solve it in the southwest metro

  • 19 min to read

CHASKA — It’s been three months since Micaiah Kelley and her family found a transitional shelter in a church basement, but a few years since their housing crisis began.

She graduated in 2017 from Job Corps, a residential training and education program where she met her boyfriend, without a home. For the next few years, the couple lived in their car, working odd jobs and couch-hopping with loved ones.

“(People) think that we’re not doing what we need to do or that we’re not trying, or we’re going down the wrong path,” said Kelley, 25. “But it’s just what happens in life.

“Sometimes it doesn’t work out for everybody to have a bunch of money or to have a house or a great apartment.”

Her breaking point was three months ago, when she realized she couldn’t support her now 16-month-old daughter, Octavia. She contacted Child Protection Services and surrendered her in late summer.

“We didn’t have food, and she wasn’t getting what she needed," Kelley said. "There was a lot of crying that day.”

The next morning she called a program called Families Moving Forward to see if they had vacancy. She regained custody of Octavia, and the three moved to the lower level of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church that day.

“She’s my world,” said Kelley, who stays at the shelter with Octavia in place of child care. “I’m glad she’s around.”

Around a dozen other people at Shepherd of the Hill bus to other churches most nights, leaving as early as 6 a.m. But Kelley said relief might soon be arriving for the trio.

Her boyfriend got a new job a month ago at a school making $17.85 an hour. The two also applied for subsidized housing this month and could move into a two-bedroom Chaska apartment before Christmas.

“I could call it home,” Kelley said.

-Amy Felegy

•••

SHAKOPEE — Kerry Kaufmann parked his Ford Explorer near the Minnesota River boat launch. His was the only vehicle in the parking lot, and he liked it that way.

A couple months ago, after he was evicted from a Shakopee apartment, he bought the truck for around $2,000 and perched an air mattress and MyPillow in the back seat along with a heaping pile of laundry, a couple bags of food and a blanket.

He reports to his overnight shift, where he gets $14 an hour and heat during increasingly cold nights, at 11 p.m. During the day, Kaufmann gets pockets of sleep near the river and hooks up his smartphone to his dashboard to watch TV.

Kerry Kaufmann 2

Kerry Kaufmann stands by his SUV, parked near the Minnesota River in Shakopee. Kaufmann sleeps in his vehicle and says the lack of affordable housing and some poor decisions on his part attribute to his homelessness.

“Seems like you can just never get warm,” Kaufmann said, shaking underneath his thin brown jacket, and it's only November. “My dream in life is to own a trailer home and a dog."

Kaufmann has been working through a temp agency with new assignments every few weeks and hopes to scrounge up enough money to find a permanent place. But his credit is in bad shape, and he doesn’t know if any landlord would accept an application.

Hopefully next week he’ll have enough money to crash at a motel for a week, he said. It will cost $200, but at least he’ll get a break from the exhaustion, from finding food, warmth or a bathroom every hour or so and interrupting his sleep.

Kaufmann didn’t want pity. He said he struggles with managing his money and made choices that led him here.

He wants people to know that homelessness is in Scott County, in the run-down Ford near the County Highway 101 bridge.

-Maddie DeBilzan

•••

CHANHASSEN — It was mid-afternoon, and the house was quiet. The four teens at Hope House in Chanhassen were either at school, working or running errands with lead youth worker Chantra Jackson.

The lull gave Hope House program manager Christina McCormick and case worker Tina McCray some time to catch up on emails, calls and paperwork.

Hope House is a Chanhassen teen shelter sponsored by the Open Hands Foundation. It opened in November 2015 in response to a community study that found three to four teens on average are homeless in Carver County every night due to family crisis or other issues.

Hope House provides gives a bed, meals, counseling and medical attention. 

Around 3 p.m., the quiet was over. Jackson returned with two 17-year-old girls. They've spent part of their day grocery shopping and visiting the Chanhassen Library, where the two teenagers checked out a half-dozen DVDs.

Tina McCray

Much of case worker Tina McCray’s time is spent on the telephone.

Jackson and the girls headed for the kitchen. One of the girls filled a pot with water to make a bowl of Ramen. The other decided on bagels.

Waiting for the water to boil, the girls talked. The first girl has been at Hope House for about a week. She's attending classes at Hennepin Technical College and will leave later that day for a class. The second girl was at Hope House for two weeks. She dropped out of high school but has a job. 

When the Ramen was ready, the teen filled a bowl and took it into the TV room where sh queued up a horror movie.

Another 15 minutes, and two more teen girls arrived from school. The volume of chatter and laughter rose. One of the newly arrived girls was anxious to get to the telephone for a job interview.

Three girls talked and looked over some of the DVDs: "The Girl on the Train," "Kill Bill," "The Departed," "The Handmaid's Tale."

"I like the movies you picked," Jackson said. "Stories about strong women."

Movie night

After running errands with lead Hope House youth worker Chantra Jackson, the teens prepare snacks in the kitchen. In the foreground, their selection of DVDs from the Chanhassen Library.

A noisy discussion ensued. The girl on the phone hung up, exasperated.

"You guys, I was on an interview for a job. You were so loud. Lucky she wasn't mad. Now I've got to fill out stuff on the computer."

The girls apologized. 

Jackson came into the kitchen and tells everyone to put on their coats. She bought a wreath and evergreen tips. They're replacing the dead flowers in the planters.

Hanging a wreath

After running errands, teens help decorate Hope House house for the holidays.

It took a few minutes for the girls to get ready. A couple of them ran upstairs to fix their hair. One complained it's too cold to go outside. Jackson eventually herded the group outside.

-Unsie Zuege

•••

CAP Suzie Misel portrait

Suzie Misel, of the Scott, Carver and Dakota counties Community Action Partnership, pauses for a photo in her Shakopee office. Misel is the Housing and Social Services manager at the CAP Agency and is an original member of the Heading Home Scott-Carver group. In 2010 the group proposed a 10-year plan for ending homelessness.

In 2010, Carver and Scott counties began a 10-year plan to end homelessness: By the year 2020, give all people in need in Scott and Carver counties access to safe, decent and affordable housing and the resources to sustain it.

In 2009, the group estimated 31 adults and 32 children were homeless on any given day in the counties. To make that number zero, the group proposed several funding and education goals as well as building 300 low-cost housing units in the two counties. A group of representatives from local nonprofits, churches, local governments and agencies gave their support. 

Since its creation, the group has worked as a facilitator and meeting place for private and public agencies working on homelessness and related issues. They’ve created events like Project Community Connect, an annual fair where people can find food, health, housing and job services.

But homelessness persists.

Suzie Misel, housing and social services manager with the Community Action Partnership of Scott, Carver & Dakota Counties and one of the original members of the 10-year working group, said homelessness has gotten worse. More people live on the edge of homelessness, and those affected are homeless longer

Misel said that in the past 30 days, the CAP Agency had received 95 calls for housing help.

“I think now the challenge goes to employment that’s more sustainable, rent people can actually pay and getting more services and agencies out here,” Misel said. "But yeah, we didn't solve it.

“We still keep fighting, we’re not giving up, we’re not done."

-Meg Britton-Mehlisch

•••

Keith Chellsen

Shakopee Community Assistance co-founder Keith Chellsen prepares a rack two-day-old food donated from the Shakopee School District. His group gave out the food at a Loaves and Fishes event at St. Mark’s Church that offers warm meals to families in need three nights a week.

SHAKOPEE — Keith Chellsen sat at the entrance of St. Mark’s Church with a cart full of donated leftover school lunch food.

An elderly woman walked through the doors and squinted at the bags of food. “French fries and mozzarella sticks?”

“You can take a bag on your way out,” Chellsen said.

Chellsen co-founded Shakopee Community Assistance, which gives out food, clothing, hygiene products and diapers for families with limited means, around six years ago. On Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings, the group partners with Loaves and Fishes for warm meals.

Things were slow this particular Tuesday. A few residents walked in from the cold, nodded towards Chellsen and walked into the cafeteria or towards clothing racks.

On the first Monday of the month, the space becomes far more chaotic. A line hundreds of people long winds down Third Avenue to receive food and other necessities for free. Chellsen said some drive 30 miles.

“And then they have to find the gas money to get here,” he said.

He sees Scott County's homelessness every day, but it's more under the radar than in big cities. He helped start Shakopee Community Assistance after retiring from Caterpillar because he was sick of watching organizations formulate 15-year plans to end the problem.

“That’s not going to help the single mom out in the cold who has three kids to feed,” he said. “And I’m not going to be alive that much longer. I want to do something now.”

-Maddie DeBilzan

•••

Over the past few years, government and nonprofit entities have formed a network of assistance for people who are homeless or at risk of it.

Carver County's Community Development Agency serves a primary role serving families and single adults, giving them a single, coordinated-entry access point to other organizations and services. 

“It’s a very hard system to navigate, and there’s a lot of players, and everyone has a different role,” said Brenda Lano, the agency's community development manager. “The last few years, the networks have strengthened and our partnerships have grown stronger."

A few of the groups in the network include the Hope House in Chanhassen, which provides shelter for ages 14-19, and Launch Ministry in Chaska, which provides various assistance to young adults. Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska is a partner with Families Moving Forward.

There are also liaisons at school districts in the county that meet regularly with Allison Streich at the development agency to discuss issues students and families have regarding housing, food and health care.

Agency housing counselor Jack Ashmore will assess clients' situations and the circumstances that pushed them into homelessness.

“We look at all the different avenues and try to find the most expedited way to get them housing possible, and sometimes there’s just not a good quick answer,” Ashmore said.

-Mark W. Olson

•••

JORDAN — It was 5 p.m., and Deb Barker was prepping ingredients in the kitchen of Hope Lutheran Church to feed 14 people, mostly kids.

Barker has cooked meals for Families Moving Forward, a program that temporarily shelters homeless families in local churches, since the southwest chapter was formed in 2014. Volunteers are told to make their favorite meal to keep things diverse. This night it was sliced pork with potatoes, corn and buns with salad and dessert.

As families returned from work, school and the program's day center in Chaska, the quiet church livened up. Soon it was hard to tell volunteers from clients. Barker came out with a bowl of potatoes, telling some boys it's almost time to eat. She identified a Pikachu doll one of them holds but couldn't name the other — Charizard, the boy told her.

The young boy followed Barker as she carried more food from the kitchen, telling her all about Pokemon. She listened.

At a nearby table, a mother of four settled down with her kids.

One of her sons came over and said a teacher from his school is here to volunteer. He worried she saw him, worried others might find out his family's situation. His mom said it's OK. She said this is a feeling her kids experience often.

"You don't want them to feel less than they are," said the mom, who insisted on anonymity. "The hardest thing is how vulnerable you are and how judgmental people are."

People often don't understand how hardworking, kind individuals can become homeless, she said. In her case, it was a month-long hospitalization bill that used up rent money. The landlord wouldn't accept partial rent or a payment plan. She was evicted and hit with $7,000 in damage fees.

Families Helping Families 2

Volunteer Angie Newton brings a serving spoon to the Families Helping Families meal table at Hope Lutheran Church in Jordan. The church is sheltering four families for a week. Volunteers prepare dinner and breakfast for them each day.

A pro bono lawyer got the damage fees waived and eviction dismissed. But she still had to find a place to live. Applications for multiple apartments and a house were rejected before she found out the eviction is still on her record. She was trying to get it expunged. It was something — between raising four kids and looking for housing — she didn't have time for.

After phoning multiple organizations, she eventually heard back from His House Foundation in Chaska, which helped place her in Families Moving Forward.

"It took a lot of channels to get here," she said. "Everyone kept referring us to somebody else."

Families Helping Families 3

Volunteers Deb Barker and Angie Newton scoop sliced pork into serving dishes. The two, along with volunteer Eric Burrill, are footing the bill for the evening’s meal. When volunteers sign up they’re asked to cook a favorite meal, to help keep the food diverse.

Thanks to the organization, she and her kids had beds and a roof over their heads. But it still wasn't a home. After being moved around week after week and relying on the kindness of strangers, she kept coming back to a feeling of overwhelming vulnerability.

"When you go out or go to work, you have to put on a facade," she said. 

-Michael Strasburg

•••

SHAKOPEE — Nicole Myhra walked from the Shakopee women’s prison to a cab, a cardboard box shaped like a briefcase in one hand, a plastic thermos in the other.

Nearly everything she owned was in that 18-inch box: documents and forms she didn’t understand, a few bags of Ramen noodles and a $100 Visa card to get her from Shakopee to Moorhead, where the Minnesota Department of Corrections arranged a hotel stay for the next 30 days because she had no home.

Myhra was in prison for three months on drug possession charges. Because she’s spent her entire life in Fargo, North Dakota, Myhra had scarcely used public transportation and couldn't tell the Twin Cities apart.

Her instructions for how to get to Moorhead were to take a cab to the transit station in Shakopee ($12), catch a bus from Shakopee to Minneapolis ($2.50), then hop on a Greyhound bus from Minneapolis to Moorhead ($37). She had to find an ATM so she could pay for the bus tickets in cash, another $3.

She'll need an ID to comply with probation and get a job for food and permanent housing. That will cost $19.25. To get an ID, she needed a birth certificate. That will cost $26.

Myhra will have 25 cents left after these expenses. She hadn’t thought about how or where to find dinner.

Nicole Myhra 1

Nicole Myhra sifts through paperwork and correspondence with her case manager the morning of Monday, Nov. 4, at the Marschall Road Transit Station in Shakopee. Myhra was released from prison earlier that day.

Inside the warmth of the bus station, Myhra sifted through the forms and instructions. Scattered and visibly anxious, Myhra crumbled the papers back into the box when asked if she needs to buy her ticket.

“How do I do that?” she asked in a panicky voice that was starting to define her first couple hours of freedom.

As she bought her ticket, the bus she was supposed to catch drove off.

“Why?” she pleaded as she tramped after it. Another bus arrived half an hour later for the Mall of America.

Myhra looked back at the metro station one last time and stepped onto the bus. She hoped she’d never see Shakopee again, but knew if she does, it’ll be inside the warm confines of the prison with three meals each day and a bed.

Community Stability Program Director Kate Erickson said the Minnesota Department of Corrections is short on resources it needs to ensure those who are incarcerated will have a home after prison.

“How do we expect people to go through that significant transformation when they're in that fight or flight of homelessness?” Erickson said. “So when we say the DOC bridges people, we really do mean that, but I know our systems aren’t set up to support it.”

There are 4,500 individuals on correctional supervision throughout the state who are homeless or lacking housing stability, according to the department. The department didn't respond to a request for comment.

Staff at Myhra’s hotel in Moorhead later said she’d checked in, but a reporter wasn't able to reach her. She doesn't own a cell phone.

-Maddie DeBilzan

•••

SAVAGE — Patrick Chesla, a social worker M.W. Savage Elementary School, keeps hundreds of winter coats, gloves and snow pants on hand for students. Boots can be harder to find.

Eight or so students are experiencing homelessness at the small elementary school downtown.

A church recently donated Thanksgiving baskets with vouchers for families to have turkey dinners. Chesla offered them to families during conferences and told them he’ll take the vouchers to the store and pick up the food — he knows many don’t have transportation.

“Social workers in schools wear a lot of different hats,” he said.

Around 250 students are identified as homeless throughout the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District, according to an internal spreadsheet that changes daily. 

Their numbers are particularly high at a couple of schools. Five percent of students at Vista View Elementary School in Burnsville were homeless last year, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

The number of homeless students is particularly high there because of a cluster of nearby hotels.

State health officials closed one of the hotels last year because the owners failed to correct safety violations such as broken windows and dangerous mold. Stephanie White, the district’s director of special education and liaison to homeless families, said the hotel closing was both good and bad — it wasn’t safe, but it was shelter. 

Children at M.W. Savage sometimes live at the nearby Quality Inn or Spring Valley Inn. Chesla said there aren't any students living there now, but some have in the past.

He and others use the spreadsheet to ensure homeless students get a free meal and transportation every day. Students' names can be added within minutes once a social worker learns they're homeless.

They then get services required by federal law, including transportation to and from school. Social workers and other administrators secure a place to stay, and then a bus route is rerouted to take the student there. Sometimes they'll hire a cab for high school students.

Homeless children move often, but staying in the same school usually provides the best educational outcomes, White said.

However, other factors might uproot a student from their school if the travel distance to shelter becomes too long or unsafe because of a medical condition. White said she starts considering placing the student in a different school when their transportation time becomes longer than an hour.

Most communication with parents happens over text message. A lot of families have a cell phone with unlimited texting but no call minutes.

One family has three students. The son at the high school has a working cell phone, so Chesla texts him to set up their ride plans. 

-Christine Schuster

•••

Scott County boardroom

Supporters of Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative’s plan to build apartments for homeless families in Shakopee chat after a Scott County Board of Commissioners meeting on Nov. 19 to hear about the plan. Several in the crowd were clergy who participate in a Beacon program that shelters homeless families temporarily in churches.

SHAKOPEE — There would be no decisions made, no votes cast, no time set aside for public comment, yet dozens of pastors and churchgoers in red sweaters and jackets packed the Scott County boardroom for a commissioner workshop early Nov. 19.

They were there simply to be there, a show of support for Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative’s idea to build 40 to 50 apartments in Shakopee for homeless families in Scott and Carver counties.

Beacon has built hundreds of units around the Twin Cities, but this one would be Beacon’s first in the area and the first focused on helping children and their parents, said Kevin Walker, Beacon’s vice president for housing and shelter. It would give a reachable rung in the ladder from sleeping in cars and on couches to having long-term homes.

Several homeless families stay with local churches in Beacon’s Families Helping Families program until they can find an apartment, but it’s become a bottleneck, Walker told the commissioners. There isn’t enough open, low-cost housing for those families to move on.

Volunteers at Shepherd of the Lake Lutheran Church in Prior Lake, for example, see the same waiting families cycle from church to church for months, said Dan Poffenberger, senior pastor and one of the meeting’s attendees.

“They want these neighbors in Scott County to have a stable future,” he said.

Beacon’s building would give tenants case management, rent assistance and services to help with child care and finances and health, Walker told the board. The group has begun discussing the plan with Shakopee staff, has a site in mind and could begin design work in the spring.

It will need some local public money, about $1.5 million, to get rolling and secure tax credits and several million more dollars from state and federal agencies, Walker said. He came that morning basically to introduce the plan and broach the topic of a county contribution.

The commissioners seemed open to the idea and advised Walker to keep building the project’s support from the public and city government.

“It’s really great to see so many of you here and involved and caring about this issue,” board Chairwoman Barb Weckman Brekke told the crowd, adding to Walker that she hoped the faith community could stay involved.

“They will be at every public hearing,” Walker said to chuckles from the crowd.

Pastor Korla Masters, another Shepherd of the Lake attendee, said she could feel the group’s anticipation and excitement, and the commissioners’ reactions encouraged her.

“I feel very positive about it,” she said afterward.

-Dan Holtmeyer

•••

Guild Incorporated Corey Samuels

Guild Incorporated outreach coordinator Corey Samuels, still dressed from an afternoon fundraiser, sits surrounded by supplies for his clients — people experiencing homelessness with a mental health diagnosis. Samuels holds weekly meetings with his clients, working to get them treatment and housing. People who come to see him often leave with arms full of either food, gloves, or hygiene products.

SHAKOPEE — Corey Samuels sighed as he walked into the Shakopee Library. He was late for his weekly outreach meeting, still in a striped business shirt and tie from his speech at a Guild Incorporated fundraiser in the Cities.

As he went to his car for a box of blankets, food and toiletries, his client joked that she knows him more for listening to clients experiencing homelessness and mental illness than giving speeches. Samuels said many of his 20 clients in Dakota and Scott counties need a supportive ear.

This client met Samuels at the Scott County Workforce center, knowing she needed help but not knowing where to find it. When Samuel found her in the hallway and asked if he could help, she began to cry.

Samuels is now the woman’s outreach manager, an advocate through the maze of state and private programs that can get her stable housing and medical treatment.

Samuels and the woman met this day to check in on her progress getting into a chemical dependency treatment program. Soon after they met, Samuels set her up with a state certified caseworker who confirmed a diagnosis and created a state-supported treatment plan.

Getting into a program or at least on a waiting list has been its own trial, requiring the establishment of the woman’s identity and copies of her personal records.

While the woman has been diligent and dedicated, Samuels could see she was increasingly anxious. He commended her work and reminded her it will make getting a job and housing much easier.

But the next week would be the end of the client's 30-day window to start treatment. 

“I feel like I’m at a standstill right now," she said. "I can’t move and can’t take a pace."

-Meg Britton-Mehlisch

•••

EDEN PRAIRIE — Local residents in need line up in PROP Food Shelf's quiet lobby to pick up weekly bags of groceries. A broad network of volunteers bustles behind the scenes to deliver food with efficiency and respect.

Barb Birky, 66, is one of them. The retired teacher has volunteered at PROP since 2004, stocking shelves and packing bags in PROP's crowded storerooms for the clients who wait on the other side of the wall for food that will help them survive the week.

PROP food shelf shadowing 1

Barb Birky, a volunteer at PROP Food Shelf in Eden Prairie, collects groceries in a shopping cart for a client. She’s volunteered at PROP for 16 years.

On a drizzly Thursday morning, Birky clipped a list of a waiting person's needs to a grocery cart and rolled between the towering shelves, winding around other volunteers. She snagged rice, chicken, oatmeal and more to pack into the four grocery bags for someone she'd likely never meet.

She spotted a request for hot chocolate and smiled: Birky had noticed the food shelf was out of hot chocolate earlier that week and bought several packs to resupply it.

"It makes you feel good, that we have it," she said. "I've been here so long, and I know what happens at certain times of the year."

Donations tend to rise during winter months and can be scarce in other seasons, Birky said, but as technology changes, the food shelf has more options to stock up.

She'd noticed that there was just a single roll of toilet paper left in the food shelf's stock recently and posted a picture of the lonely roll on PROP's Facebook page with a link to the food shelf's Amazon wish list. In a few days, the shelf was full again.

When she finished filling the bags, Birky rolled the cart onto a scale to weigh its contents. Everything that comes in and out of the food shelf is weighed and tracked by the pound.

At last it was time to deliver the groceries. Birky stepped out into a hallway and wrote a "P" on a small white board, showing the right client that their bags were ready.

While she'd seen homelessness and food insecurity during her days as a business teacher in Minneapolis, Birky's 16 years at PROP have deepened her knowledge.

"A couple incidents, and you might end up here for a couple days or a month," she said. 

The food shelf, at 14700 Martin Drive in Eden Prairie, has served Eden Prairie and Chanhassen for over 40 years.

-Eden Teller

•••

MINNETONKA — Jessie Billiet is the first person many patrons of ICA food shelf meet. She's one of two case managers at the food shelf and meets daily with up to two dozen people struggling with food insecurity and housing instability in nearby several towns.

Billiet can refer them to Hennepin County resources, food stamps, ResourceWest or MoveForward and provide what little funding ICA has to keep them in their homes and cover utilities.

Most often folks lost their jobs unexpectedly or had a car or medical bill pop up and suddenly can't pay the bills, Billiet said — "You get one crisis, and it snowballs." But they can often avoid homelessness with a small amount of help.

There's been an uptick in the last year, she added.

“Over the summer it spiked a lot; I don’t know why,” she said. “I think housing, in general, has gotten more expensive. People’s income is not going up.”

Billiet said people around Minnetonka who lose their homes frequently couch surf or move in with another family, which can cause problems with landlords.

One thing ICA can always do is provide food. They always have emergency bags filled with non-perishable, ready-to-eat foods and other essential hygiene items that anyone can take. 

-Frances Stevenson

•••

Allison Retterath 1

Supportive Housing coordinator Allison Retterath sorts through cold weather donations in the Scott, Carver and Dakota counties Community Action Partnership store room. For now, the storeroom and an empty cubicle in the Shakopee office are mostly filled with cold weather gear: handmade and donated blankets, winter coats, and sleeping mats.

SHAKOPEE — “Baby Shark” sounded through a small cubicle at the CAP Agency.

A woman had the video playing on repeat for her young son, trying to get him to sit still as she met with housing coordinator Allison Retterath. She kept one eye on a mountain of forms and another on him as he wandered.

Retterath signed off on forms that will help get birth certificates for the woman and her kids and talked about energy assistance programs and when a letter to her landlord about the CAP Agency's rent assistance for her will arrive.

Retterath, her coworkers and her manager, Suzie Misel, are used to filling in for one another — taking an all hands on deck attitude towards helping their clients with housing.

“We’re always at capacity,” Retterath said. “We never really have to wait to get a client because the waiting list is miles long.”

Retterath and her co-workers divide their time between intakes, home visits and calls to landlords.

She said she’s constantly checking sites like Zillow to find openings that meet their grant requirements: They can only place clients in apartments that pass government and state housing inspections and have acceptable rents and willing landlords. Placing someone can be the most difficult part of a case.

“You don’t realize is how many people are inches away from homelessness because rents are so ridiculous,” Retterath said. “Once you become homeless, it’s so much harder to get back on your feet, and we don’t have enough prevention programs.”

That’s why this intake with the mother, who has an apartment ready and waiting, are a cause for celebration no matter the amount of paperwork. They’re an opportunity to get clients stabilized at least for a few months to work out jobs, transportation, food and other concerns.

Even after hearing “Baby Shark” four times, everyone leaves the meeting with a smile.

-Meg Britton-Mehlisch

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