Drastic temperatures underscore the importance of access to safe, quality housing

The extreme cold and windchills in the Midwest have dominated headlines this week. When the temperature drops well below zero, a warm place to call home is crucial for survival. But too many Minnesota families simply don’t have a safe, warm place to live. For people experiencing homelessness, the cold is downright dangerous. 

“It’s pretty brutal weather to be experiencing homelessness,” said Ariana Daniel, Executive Director of Servants of Shelter, a homeless shelter located in International Falls, Minnesota. 

Currently, Daniel’s shelter is at full capacity, with five households. Four are temporarily housed in local hotels. Fifteen are on the shelter’s waiting list. 

In International Falls, one of the nation’s coldest cities, extreme temperatures are nothing new. “We get this weather every winter,” said Daniel. “This winter is not unique, and there’s nowhere in our town – not a laundromat, not a fast food restaurant – where people can be out of the cold if they don’t have a place to live.”

For this reason and others, homelessness in rural areas is often invisible. But Daniel, whose shelter served 278 individuals last year, knows all too well that the number of people experiencing homelessness in the region is rising. “That’s definitely due to the lack of affordable housing and our deteriorating housing stock,” she said. 

A recently-released housing study for Koochiching County, where Daniel’s shelter is located, shows that the region’s housing needs run the gamut from preventing homelessness, to senior housing, to housing for middle- and higher-income working people. Daniels said it’s especially concerning that the county doesn’t have a single unit of permanent supportive housing – a type of housing with onsite services that helps people who have experienced homelessness maintain stable housing. 

To address these pressing needs, Daniel and several other Koochiching County groups have joined together to form the Koochiching County Housing Collaborative, a group of housing stakeholders that’s already tackling their first rental housing development project in more than 30 years. They’re working to transform the historic Alexander Baker Building, once a school, into affordable rental homes. Attached to the Backus Community Center, a thriving community hub for the arts and more, the project is one step forward in addressing the region’s housing needs. 

“We can make meaningful change, but there’s a lot of work to do,” Daniel said. 

Daniel’s hope is that one day, her shelter will be used as intended – to house families in short-term, emergency situations only. But right now, like many Minnesota communities, homelessness continues to be a fixture. “It’s a cycle of poverty and lack of opportunity that creates something completely avoidable,” Daniel said. 

Help prevent and end homelessness in Minnesota. Support the 2019/20 Homes for All MN legislative agenda, and register today for Homeless Day on the Hill, convened by Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.