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2010 Fall Issue 6 (October 29, 2010)

Panel discusses issue of local homelessness

October 29, 2010
By Beth Budnick

Homelessness in Northfield and Minnesota more broadly was the focus of “Close to Home,” a panel that brought together Kathy Bjerke, the administrative director of the Northfield Community Action Center and Jennifer Kuoppala, a volunteer from the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless on MN Coalition. The panel was held  Tuesday October 27 in the Library Athenaeum for students and faculty. The event was organized by Nikoleta Rukaj ’11, Emily Fritz-Endres ’11, Anni Abadian-Heifetz ’12, and Kelly Soderstrom ’11 as part of their Political Science Class, Social Movements, to raise awareness of homelessness in Northfield, the different forms homelessness can take and ways for students to get involved on the issue, according to Rukaj.

On the panel, the speaker discussed the presence of homelessness  throughout Minnesota, beyond just the Twin Cities, although this fact is often ignored by the public and politicians. Bjerke in particular emphasized this point. “Most people are shocked to find out there is homelessness in Northfield,” she said.

Bjerke continued that much of the homelessness in Northfield takes the form of families “doubling up” in the houses of friends or relatives for some time, and then coming to the shelter. The shelter operated by the Northfield Community Action Center is a section of what was once a motel. Bjerke also stated that the Community Action Center housed about 45 families in the unit throughout the year last year.   The nature of homelessness in Northfield does not follow a norm regarding any particular demographic, she said, but rather people “all across the board.”

In response to student questions, she further described homelessness in Northfield beyond the shelter. In better weather, she said she had seen people camping in Nerstrand or Babcock Field (near Culver’s), or even downtown. In response to a question about winter and homelessness in Minnesota,  Bjerke noted a phenomenon that she and her colleagues at the Community Action Center had observed: the shelter was in much higher demand in the spring, not the winter. She said this was likely due to “couch-hopping”; the friends and relatives with whom individuals stay often wait to kick individuals out until the bitter winter temperature has subsided.

Kuoppala, of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, spoke more of the policy component of fighting homelessness. She discussed the current inadequacy of funding for homeless people, particularly in comparison for the rest of the population , who do have housing. However,  when discussing political issues, Kuoppala noted the organization is non-partisan, and that she “honestly didn’t think it mattered” which party was in office regarding policies on homelessness. Kuoppala did note, however, that homelessness first became an issue in the 1980s when President Reagan stopped incentivizing the building of small houses. With more large houses and fewer small, affordable start-homes, people found it more difficult to find housing, period: “We need small houses!” she stated.

Bjerke agreed, stating that affordable housing was the way to combat homelessness. She endorsed more apartment buildings in the style of Greenvale Apartments in Northfield, where residents pay 30% of their income for their unit.

Both speakers agreed that students could help efforts against homelessness by raising awareness of the issue. Kuoppala reminded the audience of the Senator Paul Wellstone’s statement that “We all do better when we all do better.” “If you get to talk and meet someone who is homeless and hear their story, you see that they’re not just lazy, there are reasons why they are homeless,” she said. “When you get that message, the community will do better. Talk to your friends and family, and get the word out.”

More information on “Close to home” in the article "'Close to Home' campaign aims to stop local homelessness".

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