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Advocates push for housing to help downtown Fargo's growing homeless population

Steps are being taken to address concerns with a goal of finding housing for those who gather downtown on public property.

A police officer and person in a tie-dye T-shirt stand facing a woman in a tracksuit.
Fargo police officer Avery Jensen and Channing Minnema, a harm reduction advocate at Fargo Cass Public Health, talk with a woman in downtown Fargo on June 23, 2022.
Chris Flynn / The Forum
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FARGO — Fargo's homeless outreach coordinator, who often hits the streets of downtown, has a solution to the increasing concerns about unhoused residents who call the core of the city their home.

Instead of living on the streets, sleeping outdoors or spending days in shelters, Jillian Gould's answer is simple: find housing for homeless people.

That's what she told the Fargo Liquor Control Board at their June meeting after members asked about what can be done about the homeless population on downtown streets.

Homeless people living downtown have not caused serious incidents, according to police and Downtown Community Partnership Executive Director Cindy Graffeo.

However, Graffeo said, there has been an increase in calls as downtown traffic rebounds after a couple quieter years.

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"If you come down on a Tuesday with grandma for ice cream, you are going to be OK," she said.

Police Lt. Bill Ahlfeldt took that a step further and said people are pretty safe every day.

"We think downtown is a fun, vibrant place, and we want people to feel safe," he said.

Ahlfeldt said assaults reported are mostly at bar closing times, while during the day the calls can be for medical situations, over-intoxication, mental health issues and minor disturbances.

The rare disturbances among the homeless population are often peer-to-peer confrontations, Gould said.

It's sometimes the "perception" rather than reality when it comes to safety concerns downtown, Graffeo said.

Ahlfeldt said statistics show downtown is no more dangerous than any other part of the city.

A woman in a denim jacket rests her head on her hand.
Jillian Gould is the homeless outreach coordinator who has been working with the homeless population in downtown Fargo for six years.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

Gould sees over-intoxication issues on a regular basis with some of the homeless population. That can result in trespassing, drinking in public and urinating in public, she said.

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"Research shows once we get our folks housed, they aren't downtown drinking and not having as many (negative) behaviors," she said.

In the United States, Gould said, "there are 20 million people struggling with substance abuse disorders, many of whom we never see or hear from."

"Unfortunately," she said, "the folks we serve are very visible with their life circumstances. With that being said, if we get them housed, they are less visible."

The downtown residential population is steadily increasing with an estimated 18,725 residents living in the core of the city as of 2021, an increase of 2,000 people in a year.

That can result in more mingling of homeless people and other residents.

Gould knows the struggles homeless people face well, as she has been working with them for six years while the city's harm reduction unit is in its 12th year.

She knows many by name, and the relationships have grown as the city's downtown engagement center in the former police station is beginning to catch on.

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Many hope the engagement center will be a boost for helping and addressing the homeless population in downtown Fargo. The center is becoming more active after first serving as a shelter for homeless people who contracted COVID-19.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

During the height of the pandemic, the center mostly served as a place for homeless people to isolate and receive care.

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Gould and her team often walk with the city's downtown resource officers to visit with homeless people and address situations.

Ahlfeldt said they have boosted the staff to four downtown resource officers who now work seven days a week instead of five.

Liquor board concerns

The Liquor Control Board members at their June meeting asked several questions of Gould, who displayed her empathy for homeless folks' life situations.

When asked by board member John Stibbe why downtown was such a "magnet" for the homeless, Gould said it's where their community lives.

She said they can blend in better downtown with their backpacks, and it's walkable.

"They don't feel so different," she said.

Harm reduction director said number of people without a place to live seems to be holding fairly steady at about 1,000 a night in metro.

Board member Robert Nelson asked if ending the sale of off-sale liquor downtown would cause homeless people who are drinking to leave the area.

Gould said they would get their alcohol elsewhere and return to their downtown community.

The bus depot and public library are also downtown and offer public property where homeless people can blend in better.

In the summer, some sleep outside, which she said is "easier than sleeping in a dorm full of men that are snoring and smelling."

Gould recognized that it can be intimidating for unfamiliar people to see homeless people congregating on benches downtown, but they find safety in numbers. The urge to stay in a group stems from their life situations and a desire to be around friends, she said.

Some need that feeling of safety, as they have been victims of assaults, sex crimes and human trafficking, Gould said.

"They shouldn't be looked down on because of their situation," she said.

Board Chairman and City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn asked about substance abuse issues.

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Members of the Fargo Liquor Control Board Dave Piepkorn, from right, Kay Schwarzwalter and Robert D. Nelson conduct a meeting Wednesday, May 18, 2022, in Fargo City Hall.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

Gould said it's "very difficult to get folks into treatment. It's an uphill battle."

She also works at the always-full Gladys Ray Homeless Shelter on the far southwest corner of downtown and with the consistently full detox center at the shelter.

"We keep trying," she said about efforts to change some of the negative behaviors of the homeless population. She said relationships can eventually motivate a change in behavior.

Gould said if the homeless, just like other people, "are ready," they'll get them into treatment.

Piepkorn asked if there were enough financial resources to offer treatment or detox.

As a state and city, Gould said, "no."

She added their staff does an amazing job and will find a way to get people into treatment or detox if they are ready.

'A turn for the better'

Gould said her relationship with the police "is the best relationship we've ever had. It's a beautiful thing."

They meet daily and brainstorm with the downtown resource officers on a regular basis.

Two school resource officers have joined the downtown team part-time to help with outreach over the summer, Ahlfeldt said. He agreed the relationship between the police and harm reduction unit has blossomed in the past two years.

The mobile harm reduction staff that help with calls can sometimes deescalate a situation better than the police because of the relationships they have built, Gould said.

Jan Eliassen, the director of harm reduction programs for Fargo Cass Public Health who oversees about 30 staff, said the mobile outreach unit is 100% funded by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

A woman with short hair and a black T-shirt.
Jan Eliassen is the director of the harm reduction program and the downtown engagement center for the homeless in the former Fargo police station.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

She said they can always use more assistance for their other programs, including housing.

She believes they are making progress.

Elliassen said the mobile unit has helped the police, ambulance and fire crews immensely by taking over some situations, whether they end up taking residents in crisis to detox, the hospital or their homes.

In May, Gould said, they transported 285 people to appropriate settings.

That's a huge help and cost savings.

Meanwhile, the engagement center, still in its infancy, is open daily from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Graffeo believes it will be "a game changer."

"It has been wonderful," Gould said.

One of the center's visitors, Brenda McDaniels, said when leaving that "it's a good place. It's a place to shower, eat and grab a bus pass."

Gould explained the center also offers laundry services and is a place to get a drink of water or, perhaps more importantly, meet with advocates about ways to find housing, jobs or other resources.

She said they are trying to "gear up engagement center activities" to give it more of a "community feel."

At a barbecue on Memorial Day, they had about 80 people attend, and a huge crowd also attended a recent Sunday brunch with food provided by area restaurants.

Eliassen said a lot of the community wants to help their homeless neighbors, and the engagement center is a place where they can volunteer.

"I think things are taking a turn for the better," Graffeo said.

The Downtown Community Partnership has also reconvened a downtown "quality of life" committee made up of businesses, public health staff, property owners, city employees, pastors, police, the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center and the Business Improvement District.

"We had a great conversation," Graffeo said about the first meeting.

She hopes the group will endorse new city ordinances on liquor control policies and is looking to be proactive on other issues facing downtown.

Another big step that lies ahead, Graffeo said, is the police substation scheduled to open in the Mercantile building on Fourth Street.

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The Mercantile, a Kilbourne Group mixed-use building pictured here Tuesday, April 19, 2022, recently opened in downtown Fargo.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

The substation was originally scheduled to open in June, but because of supply chain issues it will open in September, Ahlfeldt said.

Relationships are key

Eliassen, who has been working with the program since its inception, praised her staff. The relationships and trust they build with homeless people are key, she said.

She told of a story of a homeless man who recently died, and the Sanford Health staff kept him alive so some of the harm reduction staff could say their goodbyes and be there with him for his last breaths.

"Sometimes, the homeless can feel like no one loves them or cares," Eliassen said. "Just think about it."

She also told the story of how her staff was there for hospice care at the shelter when three residents were in their last days.

She said it shows their dedication and that they will "be there" for the population, which can make a lot of difference.

Others have seen the empathy.

Liquor Control Board member Kay Schwarzwalter, who lives downtown, said she has called the harm reduction mobile unit to help those having problems near her home and commended their work.

"I've witnessed the compassionate care that those workers gave to the people I called about," she said. "I get emotional talking about it because it's one of the kindest gestures that I've ever seen. They deserve dignity and deserve to be treated as such."

Finding homes

Eliassen is a strong believer that housing for the homeless population can be found.

She said Milwaukee almost eliminated their chronic homeless population by finding housing. Utah has also discovered the benefits of housing the homeless and dramatically reduced those living on the streets.

In Fargo, Eliassen said, they are making progress.

"We're finding housing at a faster rate than ever before," she said.

Although the homeless population in the metro area stands at about 1,000 a day, she said, the cooperation among various agencies and nonprofits has never been better.

Finding answers can be complex, and it is not as simple as obtaining funding or finding an available apartment.

The work can involve helping homeless people obtain documents such as a Social Security card or identification card before housing can be acquired.

Or it's building relationships with landlords, some of whom have become more open to renting to homeless people after being given contact information they can use if problems arise.

Or it's going through the process of obtaining housing vouchers through the Fargo Housing & Redevelopment Authority's programs that are mostly funded with federal aid.

Things are improving because there have been changes in thought processes, Eliassen said. Instead of ignoring chronic homelessness with the thought that finding housing would never work, she said, new federal rules allow them a chance at homes as they are identified as more in danger of dying. There is also emphasis on finding housing for pregnant homeless women.

"When we can get someone from the streets directly into housing, everybody wins," Eliassen said. "It's less expensive, and the community benefits, too."

Another challenge is keeping homeless people in housing. Gould told of one woman who recently got a home but said she didn't sleep there because "it was so quiet" with no radio or television.

Eliassen said the solution can be as simple as supplying a radio.

There's also the issue of mental health assistance.

Ahlfeldt think it's something that needs more attention. Gould and Eliassen agreed, and the three are hopeful about more federal mental health aid.

If there's one message from Eliassen, Gould and Ahfleldt, it's that they are trying to help. And they and many others aren't going to stop trying.

Related Topics: HOMELESSNESSPEOPLEFARGO
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