Oct. 9—MONTEVIDEO — There are no tent encampments or people pushing shopping carts with all of their worldly possessions down city streets, but like many big cities, Montevideo has many who have no place to call home.
"Homelessness looks a lot different in a rural area than what you may see on TV," said Tanya Ostenson, emergency services coordinator with Prairie Five Community Action Agency in Montevideo. "But it is definitely here. We definitely have an issue."
Ostenson spoke to an audience that filled the tables at the Montevideo Community Center on Thursday night. They came in answer to a call from the Reverend Don McKee, pastor of Our Savior's Lutheran Church. He is leading an effort to address the issue of homelessness in the community.
An anonymous donor recently provided over $20,000 to help address the issue, and Our Savior's more than matched it to provide a total of $49,700 for those in need.
The need is bigger than many realize. Ostenson works with someone in need of shelter on 19 of every 20 work days. In the past year and a half, Prairie Five served 254 households and 632 individuals, investing $331,000 in providing help, according to Ostenson.
For McKee, homelessness is a personal issue. One of his brothers was homeless and in poverty, and relied on the help of churches and strangers.
McKee arrived in Montevideo 20 years ago, and has been on the board of the St. Martin's Fund in the community for nearly as long. It is an endowment created by churches in the community to provide assistance to those in need.
"We have struggled to help people remain in their homes or find new places to live all of those years I've been on the St. Martin's board," McKee said.
There is help for the homeless. Most of the help is provided through Prairie Five and Chippewa County Family Services. But McKee said that, while programs such as rental and energy assistance are very important to those in need, they are limited in their ability to turn the tide on homelessness.
And, while homelessness may be hidden from many, McKee said it has been a reality for a very long time in the community.
"In my time here, in my 20 years, we've had people living in their cars, many — sometimes as many as 10 people who live in their cars — sleep in their cars at night," the pastor told his audience.
"Sleeping in open buildings. If there is an entryway open they sleep there until the police move them to the next empty building," he continued. "We've had people who lived in storage units; even one couple who lived in a hole in the side hill of the cemetery. Second time that's happened in the last couple of years. People who lived under the bridge outside of town. And those people who have jumped from couch to couch and stay until the people say time to go and then they move on."
The pastor said the causes of homelessness are as many as the number of people who filled the community center that evening. He asked people not to be judgmental. He pointed out that one man came to him for help after losing his home due to the medical bills incurred for the cancer that took the life of his spouse.
"What can I do?" the man asked McKee.
McKee is putting together a committee to come up with ideas on what the community can do. At the meeting, there was discussion about how communities — including Willmar, Marshall and Hutchinson — developed strategies to address homelessness, and whether those approaches might work in Montevideo.
There is a pressing need for more affordable housing in the community, McKee and others noted. Ostenson and Lisa Schultz, special services director with Chippewa County Family Services, told audience members about the challenges faced in finding affordable housing options.
Pastor McKee described one case where housing was found for a family in need. Two days later they were back: The residence was infested with bedbugs and rats, he explained.
Justin Vorbach, continuum care coordinator with the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, said a number of communities in the region are looking to provide affordable housing.
In Montevideo, 65% of the population would qualify for low- to moderate-income housing, McKee said.
The pastor is hoping a committee will be formed and help develop recommendations.
"It's not going to go away overnight," he told the audience at the night's conclusion. "But I think it is something we can make better, somehow."