Unmasking and addressing the hidden homelessness of rural Minnesota

Grace House offers those in unsafe situations a place to stay, a meal, and the building blocks for a better life

“Home” is a complicated word. Does it mean the roof over our heads? Where we keep our belongings? Or is it a safe space to sleep at night?

Even with houses available, exceptional circumstances can sometimes lead to people seeking shelter in places that wouldn’t normally be called “home.”

In north-central Minnesota, Grace House of Itasca County aims to provide safe, temporary shelter for people from all sorts of backgrounds who need it—providing meals and connecting them to community resources.

Ron Oleheiser, executive director of the Grand Rapids-based facility, says homelessness in rural areas looks much different than it does in urban centers. In fact, it’s much harder to identify.

“Homelessness is much easier to spot in big cities—you know who they are,” says Oleheiser. “Here in Grand Rapids, it could be me walking down the street with one of our guests, and you would never know which one of us is homeless.”

The presence of Grace House in Itasca County encourages those in need to seek help and escape unsafe situations, even if only for a night or two.

Born out of a local church group in 2006, Grace House maintains strong community connections with agencies that can help guests get back on their feet. The average length of stay for a guest in 2016 was 20.5 days, up from 16.5 the year prior.

In 2017, Oleheiser estimates that Grace House has been running at about 18.5 days per guest.

“We always ask what that number is from,” says Oleheiser, “but it’s hard to say. We truly believe it’s due to a lack of safe, affordable housing that there is nowhere for our guests to go as quickly as they would like to.”

Another side to this issue is the lack of capacity in treatment facilities in the surrounding area, especially for mental illness.

Program director Jessyca Bardzel points to the lack of resources available to Grace House guests, a factor that leads to a longer turnaround time.

“If someone comes in with no job, no mental health services, no health care and they need treatment, it all takes time,” says Bardzel. “It usually takes two weeks to get an appointment and it can take up to a month to get a bed somewhere else.”

Enbridge’s recent donation of $5,000 will be directed toward the general operations of the shelter facility. While Grace House aims to connect people with services they need, their first job is—and always will be—to keep guests safe and provide them with a place to stay.

Looking forward, Oleheiser and Bardzel agree that there is room for growth in specializing services to assist families, seniors and unaccompanied youth. Grace House’s continued call for volunteers may help make this vision a reality someday.

Oleheiser keeps tabs on the current status of homelessness in the region by attending conferences and remaining up-to-date on research. He says he will never forget the first conference he went to after taking on the role of executive director at Grace House.

“The word was that homelessness will be a non-issue by the year 2020,” says Oleheiser.

“And if that’s the case, I’ll be out of a job in a few years!”

(TOP PHOTO: Grace House volunteers and supporters at One NIght Without a Home fundraising event in recent years.)