Oak Grove finally recognizes homelessness -- just not all of it

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 17, 2012 - 12:43 PM

The only council that did not vote to recognize Homelessness Awareness Month reversed itself, but not without controversy.

Oak Grove has changed course and recognized November as Homelessness Awareness Month in Anoka County, although the issue remains a matter of debate.

After deadlocking on the proposal last month and comparing it to recognizing "Pothole Awareness Month," the City Council approved it 3-2 on a second vote last week. But Council Member Dan Denno argues that there aren't nearly as many homeless folks in the county as government officials claim.

The official homeless count, taken in January, found 1,463 people without homes in the county. Denno, one of two council members who again voted against the proposal to recognize homelessness this month, says the actual homeless population consists of the 53 people who were found living without shelter all the time.

"There are people who are living in motel rooms and paying their own way," he said. "Is that being homeless?"

"One of the criteria for being homeless is living in a house without utilities," he continued. "I find it hard to understand why, with all the government subsidies available, someone is living in a house without utilities in the first place. But to me, that's still not the same as living in the street."

While other cities and the Anoka County Board traditionally pass an annual motion acknowledging Homeless Awareness Month, the Oak Grove council was the only one that did not do so. With three votes needed and Council Member Mike Wylie absent, the council members on hand split 2-2. Anoka County officials said they could not recall a similar vote regarding a homelessness resolution.

Denno says it's common for the Oak Grove council to revisit controversial voting issues when members miss the initial vote. Knowing that the homeless proposal would pass with Wylie present, council members Denno and Scott Lawrence again voted against it. The resolution passed, 3-2.

Denno contended that government agencies should not be involved with taking care of the homeless.

Lawrence says he is all for helping the homeless and comes from a family "of action" that has volunteered to provide for the underprivileged. But, he said, he didn't vote for the resolution because it smacks of being a "P.R. deal" designed to help the county better position itself for receiving grants.

Community action

Anoka County Board Chairwoman Rhonda Sivarjah says she considers homelessness a problem that requires a "community plan." That includes social-services agencies, communities of faith and citizen involvement.

Heather Ries, executive director of Stepping Stone, Anoka County's emergency housing shelter, supported the federal guidelines used by the county for defining what homelessness is.

"Somebody living in a place not meant for human habitation is considered to be homeless," Ries said. "There are people we define as 'air-conditioned homeless.' They have an income, but not enough to fully support themselves or their family. They live in hotels because they can't afford utilities or don't have the ability to access a damage deposit so they can rent a place."

Ries said she spoke before the Oak Grove council last year, when that council was the only Anoka County city council to even dispute passing the proposal to recognize homelessness.

"They're not wrong -- they're confused," she said. "We should be giving them specific things, telling them where and how they can volunteer to help solve the problem."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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