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Bringing the homeless out of the cold

Realtors at Edina Realty in Duluth hand a $2,000 check to Barb Certa-Werner, executive director of Harbor House Crisis Shelters, Feb. 13 at the Duluth office. The funds will be used for new appliances for a five-apartment permanent supportive housing project in Superior. Maria Lockwood1 / 2
Footprints mark the snow outside a storage unit in Superior Jan. 25. Volunteers taking part in the point-in-time homeless count look for footprints leading to unlocked units, abandoned buildings or boats resting on land as signs that people may be living there. Maria Lockwood2 / 2

For an hour, Millie Rounsville and Stacey Johnson drove through Superior seeking out the homeless.

They rolled slowly past storage sheds, looking for footprints in the snow and lock-free units. They drove up to a pair of boats sitting on dry land, watched for light or movement in defunct buildings and alley alcoves, traveled down Connors Point and searched parking lots.

The pair from Northwest Wisconsin Community Services Agency didn't find a single person out in the cold, even after getting a tip from volunteers at Solid Rock Mission.

Barb Certa-Werner, executive director of Harbor House Crisis Shelters, also came up empty-handed when she spent an hour searching Superior's East End neighborhood.

"We found a lot of indications people may be out there, but we didn't see anyone," she said.

At least 105 people were homeless in Douglas County the night of Jan. 24 according to the annual point-in-time count. The count, taken by volunteers in January and July, provides a snapshot of how many people are living in shelters or on the streets for one night.

Most of those — 96 — were housed in shelters and transitional living facilities. One person without a home was found at a 24-hour business in Superior. Another eight people who stopped by Douglas County shelters the next morning said they had been homeless the night before.

"Just because someone's homeless doesn't mean they're an idiot," said Rounsville, CEO of Northwest Community Services Agency. In the winter cold, she said, people will find a couch to sleep on if they can.

She and Johnson placed folded pieces of paper in the cracks of three different storage units, just in case they were housing people. Each paper bore the phone numbers of agencies that offer help on one side, cold-weather survival tips on the other.

The point-in-time count doesn't include families who are living doubled-up, just those in shelters and on the street. According to Rounsville, 455 children in Wisconsin's 11 northwest counties have reported to their school district that they were living doubled-up with another family this school year.

The need for housing solutions is growing.

Last year, Harbor House Crisis Shelters provided 7,240 shelter nights to women and families through its emergency shelter program. As of Jan. 30, the shelter had been at capacity, plus or minus a bed, for a year. That's the most shelter nights Harbor House, a mission of Faith United Methodist Church, has provided in its 17-year history.

"We have people calling every day looking for shelter — every day," Certa-Werner said. "It hasn't always been this way."

The deluge has put a strain on resources.

"It's becoming exhausting finding places for people," Certa-Werner said.

Although the goal is to get people into permanent housing, she said, housing in Douglas County is limited.

Currently, emergency shelter and transitional living programs provide 30-day and 24-month housing options for those in need. Harbor House plans to open a third option this fall, permanent supportive housing.

"For the first time chronically homeless individuals will get to go into housing with no exit date," Certa-Werner said. "I think it can be a game changer."

Harbor House plans to buy a five-unit apartment building in downtown Superior for the program. The Wisconsin United Methodist Foundation provided $25,000 in seed money for the purchase. Other groups and individuals have stepped up to add to that amount.

The Optimist Club provided $1,200 and last week Edina Realty in Duluth handed Certa-Werner a $2,000 check for new appliances in the building.

Ever since it opened 25 years ago, Edina Realtors have donated a portion of their closing sales to local nonprofit organizations through the Edina Realty Foundation. The Duluth office has 100 percent participation and hands out up to $6,000 a year to organizations like Habitat for Humanity, CHUM and Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank.

Certa-Werner said it's been inspirational to see these private donors step up to support the new housing option, which is similar to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development's Housing First initiative.

As with the transitional living program, people in permanent supportive housing will pay rent. They will also receive case management that incorporates coaching, goal setting, stress management, training in life skills and more.

"We're asking where their strengths are, where they would like to improve," Certa-Werner said, instead of focusing on their deficits.

The program could make a big impact, especially on families.

"Children are 50 percent more likely to be homeless if they were homeless as a child," Certa-Werner said.

To be considered chronically homeless, a person has to have experienced homelessness for two or more years and have a documented disability. At least 32 people who have gone through shelters in Douglas County fit those requirements.

As with the point-in-time homeless count, Certa-Werner said, "There could be more."

For more information on Harbor House, visit its Facebook page, or call (715) 394-9608. Visit, call (715) 392-5127 or visit 1118 Tower Ave. for information on housing and services available through Northwest Community Services Agency.