A ‘nameless’ safety net for Bemidji’s most vulnerable citizens

Homeless shelter helps those with active substance abuse issues through Minnesota’s frigid winters

The average low temperature on a January day in Bemidji, Minnesota is a frigid -5°F.

That cold reality is brutal enough with three squares a day and a warm house waiting. Now try living through it on the streets . . . with a substance abuse problem.

In February 2016, the newly formed Nameless Coalition for the Homeless opened its 16-bed shelter, the Wolfe Center, after an alarming number of weather and alcohol-related winter deaths among Bemidji’s homeless.

It became one of the very few shelters in Minnesota serving people with active substance abuse disorders.

“There weren’t a lot of amenities to begin with for the homeless, generally, but for those with an active drug and alcohol addiction, there was nowhere for them to go,” recalls coalition board chair Reed Olson. “And people who are surviving without housing, living under a bridge or out in the woods, are the unseen, faceless population—so we thought calling ourselves the Nameless Coalition would have some resonance.”

Since that February day, this renovated church house in Bemidji has stayed open from early October to late April through four bitter northern Minnesota winters—providing close to 10,000 night stays to hundreds of Bemidji’s most vulnerable citizens, more than half of them Native Americans.

The Wolfe Center reduces jail stays by offering local law enforcement an alternative to detention. Facility staff reduce hospital workloads by treating early-stage hypothermia, burns and cuts, and other medical ailments. And clients are treated with much-needed respect and dignity.

“The relationship between our staff and guests is based on mutual trust. A lot of the people we’re working with have profound substance abuse disorder, and are often co-diagnosed with an untreated mental health issue,” says Olson.

“This is a vulnerable, fragile population. But because of the trust built up, we’ve never had to call the police because of an assault, either on a staff member or another guest.”

Enbridge is committed to improving quality of life in the towns and cities near our operations and projects, including the Line 3 Replacement Project across northern Minnesota. We invested more than $400,000 in community-strengthening initiatives across the state in 2018, and our recent donation of $5,000 to the Nameless Coalition will help fund operations at the Wolfe Center.

The Wolfe Center recently closed the book on its fourth winter of operation—and, significantly, there has been only one weather and alcohol-related death in Bemidji while the facility has been open.

“We’ve made a profound impact, a real impact,” says Olson. “When I hear about communities being reluctant to open wet shelters because of insurance and liability and the chance for violence, I wish I could be there every time to say: ‘Hey—you can do it.’ ”