MOORHEAD — All around William Jackson, people are suffering.
The courts are again evicting those who can’t keep up with rent. Winter has arrived, bringing with it snow and cold, and “old Mr. COVID” isn’t doing anyone any favors, especially in homeless shelters.
But Jackson and his daughter Miracle Star consider themselves lucky.
Four months ago, they found refuge at Micah’s Mission, a Moorhead homeless shelter that accepts families, and by Christmas he hopes to have an apartment and a job.
Jackson, 57, has a background in construction and he’s forgotten more about building than most people know. He has never had a flu shot, and has only been sick a few times in his life. So far, he hasn’t been vaccinated against COVID-19 because he believes living a healthy life without drugs or alcohol will keep his body safe.
“I’ve never been out of work. This is the first time, and old Mr. Covid, I wish he would just go away. So many people are suffering. So many people are dying. Enough is enough,” Jackson said.
Since his time at Micah’s Mission, he has seen families come and go on a daily basis. He keeps his daughter, a fifth-grader, close as she takes her courses remotely. Day cares are expensive, and hard to get to without a working car.
“The fluctuations of people coming and going, and families coming and going, it’s unreal. This is one of the richest places in the world and this shouldn’t be happening,” Jackson said.
In Micah’s Mission, space is almost gone. Lobbies have been turned into overflow spaces for men. Areas typically reserved for veterans have been used for families, which in the first week of September saw record-breaking numbers: 11 families accompanied by dozens of children were living in overflow spaces.
In October, Micah’s Mission had 15 families housed in overflow areas, and the shelter now has 11 families in overflow, said pastor Sue Koesterman, director of Churches United, the nonprofit group that runs Micah’s Mission.
“If it wasn’t for the areas that have some space, we would be at maximum capacity,” Koesterman said. “We have a shortage of shelter everywhere, and I am really concerned about winter in ways that I have never been before.”
Last winter, eviction moratoriums were in place, and Koesterman was able to manage, but just barely.
“All of these things have changed for this winter,” she said. “We are seeing a tremendous amount of pressure for shelter, and we are also struggling for staff.”
Because of emergency management issues related to the coronavirus pandemic, Koesterman has had to halt much of her fundraising work. Last year, the shelter served 769 unique individuals and saw a total of 30 positive COVID-19 cases, Koesterman said. As of August, the shelter served 677 guests and had 11 positive cases.
“That doesn’t mean we won’t get pounded, but so far so good,” Koesterman said.
Safe Haven, a women’s shelter run by Churches United, has a capacity of 27 and had only two beds left in October.
The Gladys Ray Shelter, a place for homeless men and women in Fargo, has been beyond capacity for several weeks, said shelter coordinator Danielle Gerving.
“We have all struggled to create space while social distancing in shelters throughout the pandemic, as shelters are naturally congregate settings. The weather has turned cold, driving many more people to seek shelter,” Gerving said, adding that the shelter’s greatest need is winter apparel, especially gloves.
At Fargo’s New Life Center, a facility for men, the shelter was recently down to just a few beds available. Rob Swiers, the director, said he had to bring 33 men back into the shelter who were off site because he didn’t have enough staff to operate two facilities.
“We are definitely seeing lots of guys looking for help and a lot of mental health issues we’re seeing. Couple that with a lack of good staff, and it’s a complicating factor we’ve not seen before, ever,” Swiers said, noting that the center has raised wages in hopes of attracting staff.
The YWCA Cass Clay Emergency Shelter, the largest facility for women and children in North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota, has been at or above capacity throughout the fall, said Erin Prochnow, executive director.
"Nearing two years of a pandemic where all our lives have changed in such a significant way adds levels of trauma to that difficult situation," Prochnow said. "It's overwhelming people."
As winter approaches, the YWCA shelter needs cold-weather gear and cleaning supplies the most, she said.
Many seeking shelter are the people hardest hit by COVID-19, Koesterman said. They’re struggling to survive on minimum wage salaries, reduced hours. They are front-line workers, hotel staff, restaurant and grocery store workers, Koesterman said.
At Churches United, another problem has cropped up during the pandemic.
“One of the biggest challenges at Churches United is an increase in really serious mental illnesses among shelter guests. Isolation has taken a tremendous toll on people who are in shelters and don’t have a robust support system,” Koesterman said.
Exact numbers of how many people are currently in local shelters, sleeping in tents or in their cars aren't available right now because COVID-19 “disrupted the ability to count,” Koesterman said.
The biggest surge in homelessness usually comes after the new year “when the weather hits hard,” she said.
“We need to have more deeply affordable housing and housing assistance vouchers that come with support,” Koesterman said. “Some people are here just to get on their feet, some are chronically homeless, but a large chunk of people, if they only had a little more support could make it on their own.”
Jackson and Miracle Star have lived in Canada, Missouri, California, and most recently in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, where he was robbed, Jackson said. Motel bills at about $1,200 a month also became too much of a burden, and he knew he had to do something to avoid living on the street with his daughter.
A motel clerk told him to go to Moorhead and seek out Micah’s Mission to get back on his feet. Now, he wants to stay.
“What puts a smile on my face are the people here. They help. They really help,” Jackson said.
Miracle Star, so named because Jackson said she was born dead, not breathing. And at the moment she began to breathe, a bright light from outside illuminated the hospital room.
“It was a miracle she came back from death and strange because that light lit up the whole room,” Jackson said.
Miracle Star, a voracious reader, is taking life at a homeless shelter in stride, and loves her studies. When she was younger, she read through the entire Harry Potter series that Jackson picked up from a thrift store.
“As long as she has a daddy, she’s not worried about anything,” Jackson said.
For the upcoming spring semester in 2022, Jackson plans to have Miracle Star attend in-person classes, but for now, she’s studying remotely.
“It is kind of rough because I have to keep my child focused and staying positive," he said, "even when dealing with adversity."