MOORHEAD — The services of local homeless shelters are most critical during brutal Upper Midwest winters, and this season is off to a quick start.

The two largest shelters in the Fargo-Moorhead area, New Life Center and Churches United, were forced to tap into overflow space on Oct. 11 when an early fall blizzard brought snow, cold temperatures and high winds.

That’s at least a month earlier than usual, according to Rev. Sue Koesterman, executive director at Churches United.

The overflow spaces have been utilized ever since due to the period of colder, wetter weather that followed, with December right around the corner.

“There were 8 or 10 people sleeping in the dining room,” said Koesterman of a recent morning when she arrived at work.

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Space is also tight at New Life, according to Donor Relations Manager Jay Thoreson.

“Overflow has been full every night,” he said.

Each facility handles overflow accommodations a little differently.

At New Life, sheltering only men at 1902 3rd. Ave N. in Fargo, capacity is 135 overnight, including 27 overflow beds, Thoreson said.

At Churches United, prioritizing shelter of women and families at 1901 1st Ave. N. in Moorhead, overnight capacity is 112, leaving 20-some spaces for overflow, depending on the size of each family being sheltered in regular beds.

When the census is high, strain increases on a small staff that already is running “right down to the bone,” Koesterman said.

Pastor Sue Koesterman, executive director for Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead, talks about having to open overflow space at the shelter earlier than usual this winter season. Chris Flynn / The Forum
Pastor Sue Koesterman, executive director for Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead, talks about having to open overflow space at the shelter earlier than usual this winter season. Chris Flynn / The Forum

The shelter also incurs higher costs with more people needing to eat, take showers and do laundry.

Overflow spaces are a night-by-night arrangement, so people are asked to pack up their belongings every morning.

If they don't, things get “very messy and chaotic in a big hurry,” Koesterman said.

Individual adults in overflow are expected to carry their suitcases and backpacks with them throughout the day, while families are allowed to store some items.

Koesterman said ten years ago, there were 675 homeless people in the F-M area on any given night, with 370 shelter beds.

Now, that number is 1,075 homeless with fewer than 500 shelter beds, she said.

Those not in shelters either stay with other family or friends or are unsheltered.

The numbers come from the “State of Homelessness in Fargo-Moorhead Metro” report, released in June by the Fargo-Moorhead Coalition to End Homelessness in collaboration with United Way of Cass-Clay.

Koesterman said one of the fastest growing demographic groups at Churches United is families with young children.

The shelter has eight regular rooms for families. Last weekend, three families had to be housed in overflow space in the basement.

As of last winter, the city of Moorhead agreed to allow the shelter to use that space on a limited basis, she said.

It does not have egress windows, which are typically required as a means of escape in case of fire.

The overflow room in the basement of Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead does not have egress windows, but the city allows the shelter to use it for people seeking a warm place to sleep on a limited basis. Chris Flynn / The Forum
The overflow room in the basement of Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead does not have egress windows, but the city allows the shelter to use it for people seeking a warm place to sleep on a limited basis. Chris Flynn / The Forum

However, the space is right next to an exit stairwell, where additional lighting has been installed; plus, the shelter is staffed 24/7 to keep an eye out for potential hazards, Koesterman said.

Donations are welcome, especially since facilities are facing a longer than usual period of overflow shelter this winter.

Thoresen said monetary gifts to New Life Center are most needed, giving the shelter flexibility to buy bus passes and pay the water bill.

The same is true for Churches United; however, people wishing to give in-kind donations can always give diapers, wipes, feminine hygiene products, quilts, blankets and towels.

Warm winter coats and boots are also in demand, Koesterman said. Anyone looking to donate those can contact the shelter for specific sizes. Hand and foot warmers that can be slipped inside gloves or boots are also needed, because many shelter residents spend time working outdoors and waiting in line for day labor or to catch a bus.

The YWCA Cass Clay Emergency Shelter at 3000 S. University Drive in Fargo is also in need of donations.

Though the shelter primarily serves women and children escaping domestic violence, it is also impacted by colder weather, according to CEO Erin Prochnow.

“We have a need for winter coats so kids can get on the bus,” she said.

Winter boots and snow pants, along with food items including high-protein products like peanut butter, are also needed.