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Fargo homeless shelter implements new accountability program

FARGO - It's rare to find a vacant bed at a men-only homeless shelter here in mid-November, but last week, about a dozen metal bunks at the New Life Center were empty.

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Thomas DeGraw is seen on his bunk bed at the New Life Center in north Fargo. David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO – It's rare to find a vacant bed at a men-only homeless shelter here in mid-November, but last week, about a dozen metal bunks at the New Life Center were empty.

"Crazy," according to Rob Swiers, executive director of the shelter, at 1902 3rd Ave. N.

One factor could be the mild start to winter, but the bigger reason, he says, is a movement at New Life to demand more accountability from the men who stay there. Starting Oct. 5, anyone seeking shelter beyond the 30-day emergency Harbor Program must enroll in the new Passport Program. It's a collection of classes on life skills, including basic budgeting and conflict resolution, and later, grocery shopping, cooking and landlord relations. The classes, which will also include some electives, take place at the shelter and are taught by community volunteers.

"We need to focus on not just letting guys stay here but putting a time frame on it," Swiers said.

For some of the men, the shelter has been a revolving door-they'd leave and drink alcohol, stay at a friend's place for a few nights, then check back into the shelter. But no more.

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"I don't want to participate in just letting people exist," Swiers said.

Over the past year, Swiers has been visiting similar-sized shelters in other states to learn about accountability-based programming. Now in his fifth year at the shelter and more than two years as director, he said he is overhauling everything.

"If you're going to stay with us longer, you have to invest in yourself and we're going to invest in you," Swiers said.

The aim is to address the problems that led to each man becoming homeless in the first place and, eventually, help them navigate finding a place of their own. There has been pushback from some men who aren't ready or willing to tackle their own demons-which is why some of the shelter beds are empty.

"We are still going to service them and love them, but then (after 30 days) we will ask them to leave," said Swiers.

From 'Harbor' to 'Passport'

The New Life Center has a 120-person maximum capacity, including 88 emergency beds. Sixty of those beds are stacked in rows in a crowded large dormitory and another 28 beds are set up in three small dorms. The shelter has 20 private or semi-private beds, and it can take in about a dozen other men in overflow space or "mats on the floor."

Swiers said of the current guests, more than 30 are in the short-term Harbor Program, while about 50 are in various phases of the Passport Program.

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New to the shelter just last month, Thomas DeGraw is taking some Passport classes and looking forward to more. He said he came to North Dakota two years ago after hearing about the oil and restaurant boom. He worked off and on in restaurants in Bismarck, and after getting kicked out of a shelter there, decided to come to Fargo.

"It's a very safe and secure place that people who come from a hard upbringing can come and kind of get a fresh start," said DeGraw, a 26-year-old Baltimore native who's been "chronically homeless" for almost 10 years.

After a mostly happy early childhood, he said his family life fell apart at age 11 when his mother had a mental breakdown due to schizophrenia and his father took a job six hours away due to a company downsizing.

"He pretty much made sure we had groceries and rent paid, but he was never there," said DeGraw. "I just grew up with no discipline, with a mother who laid in bed all day. I pretty much did whatever I wanted," he added.

DeGraw said after his mother became ill, he began hanging out with older kids and getting drunk. At the same time, he was struggling with his own depression and anxiety.

He acknowledges that he's homeless, in part, by his own doing. He said he won't do physical labor because he's "too lazy" for that and there are certain societal norms that he just doesn't want to follow. But he says the biggest barrier to him staying employed and having a place to live is his struggle with mental illness.

"I can hardly hold a job, even fast food for more than six or seven days because of the thoughts I'm battling in my head at all times," said DeGraw. Most days, "It's a battle just to get out of that bunk," he added.

DeGraw has already met with a doctor who makes regular visits to the New Life shelter and he's hoping to get connected with the right people for help.

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"I plan to take full advantage of the services," he said.

Restrictions at other shelters

Other shelters in the Fargo-Moorhead area have restrictions on length of stay, with varying conditions. At Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead, single males and females can get up to six weeks of shelter.

"We are not a permanent housing option," said Mike Almquist, director of Shelter Services at Churches United. "After six weeks, with some exceptions, we encourage them to move on."

Once someone leaves Churches United, there's a 15-day waiting period to check back in. After another six weeks of being sheltered and they leave, the wait period gets longer-45 days.

There's no limit on length of stay for families staying in the shelter, as long as they're working with a case manager and reaching progress goals.

At the YWCA Shelter in Fargo, which serves women escaping domestic violence and homeless women and their children, the emergency shelter period is 45 days.

According to Executive Director Erin Prochnow, women need to be working with an advocate on five points: housing, child care, health and well-being, education and employment. They can file an extension when they approach the deadline if they want to continue staying.

"We walk this fine line I call our empowerment tightrope," said Prochnow. "We meet each individual woman where they're at in their journey and make sure they're independent when they leave our program."

The move to lessen dependence on homeless shelters requires intentional efforts by the shelter and the individual, said Swiers, and pushing change will always ruffle feathers.

"There are always going to be people who dislike what you're doing ... but I do feel it's the right thing to do for the people who need help," he said.

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