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

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.

“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

•••

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

•••

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,” Kelley, 25, said. “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 — 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 toward Chellsen and walked into the cafeteria or toward 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

•••

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 Helping Families, 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.

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 Helping Families.

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

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

•••

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 Olson

•••

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.

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. 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 cellphone.

-Maddie DeBilzan

•••

SAVAGE — Patrick Chesla, a social worker at 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 cellphone with unlimited texting but no call minutes.

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

-Christine Schuster

•••

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 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’ll 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

•••

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 thhe 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

•••

SHAKOPEE — Sitting in a visiting station at the Scott County Jail, a woman gave a hesitant wave, picked up the phone attached to the wall and started talking.

“Do you want the long version or the short version?” she asked.

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, pulled at the skin on her forehead and shifted her eyes back and forth along the base of the glass as she recounted the last few years: living in subsidized housing, losing it, receiving Supplemental Security Income, losing that, too.

She’s had a roommate before, but it triggered her bulimia. Sharing a kitchen space can be triggering, she said. Working at a local pizza joint, the only place in town she could find that would give her a chance, was triggering. Coworkers caught her binging pizza in the bathroom.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, body dysmorphia, anorexia, bulimia and depression are among her mental health issues. She said they all reached a head on a cold day during a Loaves and Fishes community meal in Shakopee.

She tipped over racks of clothing, shattered glass mugs and sucker-punched a volunteer in the face.

It was too cold to sleep outside and, she thought maybe she could get court-committed to a hospital to treat her eating disorders. If that plan didn’t work out, she didn’t know what she’d do.

She had slept outside under pine trees before. She avoids the parks because she doesn’t want to get fined for being there after hours. She stays with family a lot, too. When it’s cold, she’ll sometimes use her money for a hotel. But her money lasts only a few nights.

Keith Chellsen, who’s worked with Loaves and Fishes for years, said the woman’s outburst that night was an isolated, uncommon occurrence.

The woman, who spent her adolescence in Shakopee, said she’s been in jail three times before, all due to fights over food. At least in jail she could control what she ate. She could avoid the bread they served, but that meant she couldn’t exercise as much.

“I would rather sit in jail the rest of my life and be skinny than be fat,” she said.

The woman said she wants to get better, she wants treatment for her eating disorders, she wants a job. And she wants stable housing where she can live independently.

“Working and being homeless is hard,” she said.

-Rachel Minske

•••

JORDAN — A 100-year-old brick building right off the railroad tracks in rural Jordan, once used to bathe and pamper wealthy clients from across the state, has been proposed as the future site of Scott County’s only homeless shelter.

This summer the Scott County Health and Human Services Department considered converting the second floor of the county Regional Training Facility into 30 dormitory-style rooms that could be used to house about as many people.

The facility is primarily used to train the county’s law enforcement, firefighting, emergency management, public health and public works employees. Sheriff Luke Hennen supported the shelter proposal and said the change wouldn’t necessarily hinder law enforcement operations.

“It’s definitely a good untapped resource that can get us at least on our feet with dealing with some of our homelessness and housing issues in the community,” Hennen said.

The homeless population in both Scott and Carver counties hasn’t grown over the past few years, but it’s become increasingly visible. The drop in sheltered individuals since 2015, from 84 to 42, leaves 69% of the two counties’ homeless people without access to shelter, according to a study by Wilder Research.

The proposal, however, lost traction as local government officials raised concerns about housing people in need in a remote location that shares space with a law enforcement gun range. Scott County officials this month started looking for other options.

There’s no homeless shelter for adults in Scott or Carver counties.

-Michael Strasburg

•••

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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Metro Millers Stadium announces plans to open spring of 2021, adjacent to Canterbury Park

Metro Millers Baseball LLC announced Monday that its proposed 8,500 capacity stadium is aiming to build somewhere within Canterbury Commons, adjacent to Canterbury Park, and organizers want it to throw its first pitch in spring 2021.

Former Shakopee mayor and District 55A Rep. Brad Tabke, D-Shakopee, is heading the media relations for the Metro Millers through his consulting company, Grepoli Inc. He presented the plans to Shakopee residents at Canterbury Park on Oct. 24.

Metro Millers has not submitted applications to the city, though Tabke said he has been in touch with city staff, who have told him the land is already appropriately zoned for the stadium. Tabke said he also reached out to the Shakopee City Council members and Mayor Bill Mars with information regarding the stadium’s preliminary plans, and did not hear back with questions or concerns.

City Administrator Bill Reynolds said staff has received no information on the proposed stadium as of Nov. 25. Mars said commenting on the stadium’s plans is difficult because the city currently has such little information, adding the only information he’s seen on the stadium has been online through news outlets, including the Valley News. He said he was unable to make it to the open house in October.

“I think whether the city is on board or not is very premature at this point,” Mars said, “without a plan or a proposal or traffic studies, or other things that normally go into something like this.”

Tabke said because the project will be privately funded, there isn’t a huge public or city component to it. He said he also doesn’t anticipate the stadium’s surrounding infrastructure will need to change much, or at all, to accommodate the new venue, provided it’s built where the Metro Millers are hoping to be located.

“Once we know the exact location, we will need to look into the traffic patterns, sewer, water, electricity to make sure it doesn’t unduly impact the other things that are going on around it,” Tabke said.

The stadium will be privately funded through the MnVest platform, which is a crowdfunding platform for small businesses likened to GoFundMe. The minimum investment will be $1,000, and there are six investor tiers ranging from $1,000 to $25,000, each with their own incentives for stakeholders.

As of Nov. 25, the team had raised $5,000. It started to accept public investments on Oct. 31 and will end Oct. 31, 2020.

If the project does not raise at least $600,000 through MnVest, all the investors will get their money back, Tabke said. The most money the Metro Millers can raise through MnVest will be $1.5 million.

Tabke said the Metro Millers are in land negotiations right now, and that the building process will likely take nine months. He added “everything looks and feels good right now” with the stadium’s preliminary progress.

“This is an incredibly exciting project for the region,” Steve Becher, Chief Management Officer of the baseball team, said. “Our expected location in Shakopee has great transportation access, is near many other successful entertainment attractions and will be an invaluable community asset.”

The stadium was designed to house 1,140 luxury club seats, 3,092 priority club seats, 1,880 grand stand seats and 1,000 spots for viewers to watch in the grass. It would also house soccer, lacrosse, BMX racing, concerts, hockey games and other events. The structure would be built with the possibility of adding a potential dome roof in the future, but the plans do not currently include a dome structure.

Jeff Maday, a spokesperson for Canterbury Park, said Canterbury is excited to see several developers interested in Canterbury Commons.

“We look forward to working with the Metro Millers group as they prepare financially to move forward,” Maday said.

Interested investors can learn more at MetroMillers.com. Project sketches and details available for download at MetroMillers.com/Community.