FARGO — Some people have more to worry about during the coronavirus pandemic than keeping themselves and their loved ones safe and healthy.

Over the course of just one week in September, 92 households in Cass and Clay counties reached out for help with a housing crisis.

Agencies helped resolve the crises for 12 of those households, but 80 others were not able to secure the assistance, according to the United Way of Cass-Clay.

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That meant 80 households were either at risk of becoming homeless or already in that position, living in their car, a tent, or doubled up with others — feeling a constant state of uncertainty.

When they have a place to call their own, the opposite is true.

“It just has a ripple effect on your emotional, behavioral level. Everything is just so much more calming and safe for those people,” said Sarah Kennedy, a social worker with Presentation Partners in Housing.

Of the more than 1,000 men, women and children experiencing homelessness on any given night in the Fargo-Moorhead metro area, about half are people of color and indigenous people, according to the FM Coalition to End Homelessness.

Executive Director Cody Schuler said that’s disproportionate in a community that’s nearly 90% white.

Many of those who are homeless also deal with chronic health conditions, mental illness and substance abuse.

“We need to be looking at all of those pieces,” he said.

Traditionally, agencies have used a “housing first” model, with the belief that everyone has the basic human right to a safe, stable home.

The person or family is homeless first, then advocates work to find them housing.

Thomas Hill, United Way’s vice president of Community Impact, said that can create a bottleneck of sorts in the quest for services.

“We have more people coming into the system than exiting out,” he said.

When those entering shelters are asked where they stayed before becoming homeless, most say they had a home or apartment before losing their job, being saddled with a big medical bill or some other financial crisis.

Now, the thought process has become, what if intervention could stabilize those families at a time of crisis and prevent them from ever becoming homeless?

Churches United in Moorhead and other shelters opened overflow spaces in November last year, earlier than usual. David Samson / The Forum
Churches United in Moorhead and other shelters opened overflow spaces in November last year, earlier than usual. David Samson / The Forum

Hill, Kennedy and others in community partnerships think it can be done by taking a triaged approach and by hiring more housing stability specialists.

An individual or family facing a housing crisis could call a 211 hotline, operated through a partnership with FirstLink, where they’d be triaged for services.

A housing stability specialist would act as their liaison, contacting a landlord to work through a repayment plan, for example.

United Way has two such specialists now but would like to increase that number to eight.

Sarah Kennedy. LMSW Presentation Partners in Housing. Chris Flynn / The Forum
Sarah Kennedy. LMSW Presentation Partners in Housing. Chris Flynn / The Forum

Hill said if that can be done, data show they should be able to divert up to 90% of families from ever becoming homeless by 2023.

That would equate to more than 4,000 families in the community, he said.

The goal is not to get rid of shelters, because there will always be emergencies, such as families fleeing domestic violence, Hill said.

Reducing the number of Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACES, including homelessness, poverty or violence in the home, can go a long way toward keeping kids physically and mentally healthy into adulthood.

Schuler said research shows children facing multiple ACES can have shorter life spans than those who don’t.

“We just know that the opportunity to prevent this from ever occurring is the right thing to do,” he said.

Even if people don’t personally know anyone affected by homelessness, reducing it could help the entire community.

“This benefits our neighbors. This benefits businesses. This benefits our police force … (and) social services. Everyone benefits from having more individuals stably housed and not homeless,” Hill said.

Join Robin Huebner and multiple community partners in homelessness for a virtual townhall discussion on Wednesday, Oct. 14 at 2 p.m. here on inforum.com.