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Published November 21, 2012, 11:40 PM

On the brink: Number of homeless families growing in F-M

MOORHEAD - Sometimes a drastic event leaves someone homeless. Julie Makhoul lost her job when she was two months pregnant. Then the house where she was staying with friends was raided in a drug bust just a few weeks before she gave birth. But for others, it doesn’t take much.

By: Tracy Frank, INFORUM

MOORHEAD - Sometimes a drastic event leaves someone homeless.

Julie Makhoul lost her job when she was two months pregnant. Then the house where she was staying with friends was raided in a drug bust just a few weeks before she gave birth.

But for others, it doesn’t take much.

For Marlene Morrison, it was a rent increase.

For Laura Thompson, it was an eviction.

War Eagle Martin had to abandon his apartment while fighting for custody of his children, he said.

Homelessness can be a matter of just a lost paycheck or two, said Laurie Baker, Fargo Moorhead Coalition for Homeless Persons executive director.

There are 27,000 people in Fargo-Moorhead accessing food programs and at risk of homelessness, she said.

“Homelessness can happen to anybody. It really can,” she said. “Those of us who try not to think that, we’re just kidding ourselves.”

While a lot of circumstances can lead to homelessness, the main cause is poverty, Baker said.

“You can have an addiction or mental illness and if you’ve got money, you’re fine,” she said. “If you are living in in extreme poverty, almost everything, whether it’s family support or health, becomes a barrier.”

Domestic violence is a primary circumstance that leads to homelessness for women and families, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. It’s the reason 76 percent of women and children sought services with the YWCA Cass Clay last year, said Rachel Clarke, YWCA Cass Clay associate executive director.

And it’s the reason Brittany Harris had to give up her home. She now lives at Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead with her three children, a 9-year-old daughter and 5- and 3-year-old sons.

A GROWING PROBLEM

While homelessness is arduous for anyone, it’s even more trying for families.

Children need stability, and that’s hard to come by when you’re moving from place to place or living in a shelter.

“It’s hard to be a single parent in a homeless situation,” said Morrison, who is living at Churches United with her 5-year-old daughter.

They spent time sleeping in hotels and her car after rent went up by $145 a month and she was evicted.

“It’s really difficult to keep the schedule I had with her before,” she said.

When parents have children to care for, it’s more difficult to work or look for housing.

“If it was just me, it wouldn’t be so bad,” Harris said. “I can fend for myself, not eat, whatever. But when you have kids and you care about your kids, you obviously don’t want them going through anything like that.”

Families also have a harder time finding housing because they need more space, and bigger apartments are more expensive, said Ann Leuthard, Churches United for the Homeless support services director.

The numbers of homeless families and young adults are growing more than any other homeless population, Baker said.

“Every shelter is turning away people and is at capacity with sleeping rooms,” Baker said. “That’s been consistent for going on 18 months now. That strongly suggests that the numbers are still going up.”

Homeless families are primarily single-parent families and often moms with children. While there are no exact statistics on the numbers of homeless families in the area, about 1,000 people a night are homeless in the community, she said.

The YWCA and Churches United are the only local shelters that house families, and Churches United is the only shelter in the area that will take a father with his children.

In the past week, the YWCA turned away 12 to 15 people a day, and half of those were families, Clarke said.

The shelter can house 65 women and children, but in an emergency will accommodate up to 80 people by converting spaces like the library, family room and lounge into sleeping quarters, she said.

Last year was the first year in the shelter’s history that more children were served in the emergency shelter than women, Clarke said.

The eight family rooms at Churches United for the Homeless are continually full. And the temporary emergency care program, which allows families to stay on mats on the floor of the boardroom, chapel, and offices, consistently houses two families and has housed as many as five, Leuthard said.

There are also three families on a waiting list for a room and 10 families who recently called for housing but found temporary housing elsewhere, she said.

“There’s been significant homelessness in our country since the early 1980s, and there are families who now have three generations of individuals who have spent time in shelters,” said Jane Alexander, Churches United for the Homeless executive director.

Studies have shown that if someone spends time in a homeless shelter as a child, it becomes more of an option as an adult than it otherwise would be, she said.

“It makes a way of life of using systems that are helping,” Alexander said.

STRUGGLES

It can take three to four months to connect families with housing, and there are a lot of barriers to finding it, Leuthard said.

If someone has been evicted, has a criminal history or owes money on past utility bills, it can seem impossible.

“What Fargo-Moorhead doesn’t have a lot of is reasonable housing,” said Morrison. “It’s very hard to find a landlord that will give you a second chance.”

Laura Thompson is staying in an office at Churches United with her 16-year-old son.

She said her landlord wasn’t fixing problems with her apartment, her electricity had been turned off and she was eventually evicted.

“We left everything,” Thompson said. “We just packed some clothes and grabbed a couple blankets and came over here.”

While living at a shelter is better than having nowhere to go, it’s not easy.

“Being here is very stressful with kids,” Harris said.

In addition to living by rules that are not her own, she cannot control the behaviors of other people, and it’s difficult to get the mental health medications she needs because it’s a controlled substance, she said.

Makhoul moved to the area from Michigan in January because she’d heard about the good economy and wanted a better life.

After staying at Churches United for a month, she met her fiancé, found a job and got an apartment.

But then she lost her job a few months later and had to work at a fast-food restaurant, where she took a massive pay cut, she said.

She was two months pregnant at the time, and while she and her fiancé both worked, their finances continued to worsen, she said.

After she was evicted, Makhoul and her fiancé ended up at the shelter.

Since she’s on unpaid maternity leave, she has no income and has to rely on donations for everything she needs for her daughter.

“I never know when I’m going to get the next set of diapers or when I’m going to run out of formula,” Makhoul said.

But she said she’s actually looking forward to being in the shelter during the holidays because she has heard Churches United puts on a good celebration.

HEALING THE FAMILY

While she tries to find housing, Harris is also working on healing herself and helping her children work through their post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.

The YWCA and Churches United connect residents with medical and counseling services.

“If we can’t make these families as healthy as possible during that time that they’re here, they’ll never be able to sustain that stability,” Leuthard said. “We work really hard to make them emotionally healthy, spiritually healthy, physically healthy because if they are strong when they leave here, their chances to maintain that when they leave are heightened dramatically.”

Children who stay at Churches United are required to go to school, and the staff works to create as normal an environment as possible by providing after-school snacks, activities for the kids and a focus on their homework, Leuthard said.

But Alexander said there is no resource aside from basic schooling to reach out to the children who are homeless.

“They are going to need every advantage to get out from under that,” she said. “The helping systems have got to invest in these children across the instability if they are going to get out of it because the parents cannot.”

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