Tacked to the front door of the former rectory near St. Genevieve Catholic Church in Hugo was the week's to-do list for the volunteers helping turn a six-bedroom farmhouse into Washington County's second homeless shelter.
At the top of Jenny Mason's task list, however, is something less tangible than painting baseboards. As executive director of the community resource center at St. Andrew's Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, Mason wants to raise awareness of homelessness in the county.
"There's definitely a need," Mason said. "It's thought of as an affluent county, but we do have serious pockets of poverty."
Five percent of Washington County's population lives below the poverty line, according to the American Community Survey, and median rent is pushing $1,200. Of 1,100 affordable housing units owned and operated by the Washington County Community Development Agency, just half a percent are vacant.
Since 2012, St. Andrew's has partnered with Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Oakdale to house up to seven families at its former rectory. But the need is much greater, Mason said. In May alone, the St. Andrew's shelter turned away 18 families because it was full.
The St. Andrew's Family Shelter in Hugo is set to open this month and will have rooms for five families with no maximum length of stay. Still, the county lacks emergency shelter for homeless youth and homeless individuals.
Last month, the St. Croix Family Resource Center released a study that found that one in nine of the 101 surveyed youth in the county had either left their home or been kicked out. In 2017, the county's homelessness outreach team identified more than 100 homeless people.
"As we learn more about the problem, it's going to take everybody, not just the county or one agency," said Cindy Parsons, director of the St. Croix center. "Homelessness is a community problem, and it'll require a community solution."
Therese Gilbertson with Washington County Community Services agreed. With more awareness of the issue, she said, "Everyone is asking, 'What can we do?' "
Adding shelters to serve youth and individuals should be a priority, she said, but long-term solutions will have to go beyond providing more beds. "What is needed in tandem with emergency shelter is more affordable housing," she said.
With Washington County's low vacancy rates, many families find themselves waiting up to four months to move into an affordable place. The county can provide hotel vouchers for the interim, and last year 15 families and 31 individuals used them.
"These are often folks who have employment, who have kids going to school," Gilbertson said. "They are just struggling to afford housing."
Troy Wareberg and Tracy Tobin never expected to tell their 13-year-old son that they'd be moving to a homeless shelter. A decade ago, the family lived in a four-bedroom house in White Bear Lake, and Wareberg, now 54, was making $18 an hour working in customer service. Then he was laid off during the Great Recession and went a year and a half without work before landing at McDonald's, where he's now a kitchen manager.
'We were panicking'
After seven years in a two-bedroom apartment in White Bear Lake, the family received notice this spring that rent was jumping $135 per month. The search for another affordable place proved difficult; several apartments they applied for had up to a dozen other interested renters. Most of the move-in dates were months down the line.
"I never thought about how hard it would be until we were in that situation," Tobin said. "We were panicking."
The family moved into the St. Andrew's shelter in May and stayed until last week, when they could finally move into a new two-bedroom apartment they found with the shelter's help. Though the couple were excited to finally cook their son's favorite meal in their own kitchen and be reunited with their dog, they couldn't say enough about the Oakdale shelter. They are already planning to return as volunteers and are eager to see the Hugo shelter when it's done.
"I think about where we could have been," Tobin said, her voice trailing off. "We are so fortunate we found the shelter. The community is fortunate to have it."