Every year, about 500 men cycle through the small rooms on the top two levels of Cochran Recovery Services, set on a hill in Hastings next to the Vermillion River.
It’s an unlikely setting for Dakota County’s only shelter for homeless men — and it may not continue to operate much longer. Faith leaders and social service providers met Thursday to discuss gaps in the housing safety net and replacements for the shelter, which Cochran might close as it focuses on other services.
Their conversation comes as other communities are rethinking how to help the homeless. Officials from counties across the metro area plan to meet next month to discuss how to better coordinate shelter and housing services.
“What we’re doing isn’t working, and for each smaller county to try to create its own solutions may not be the right answer, either,” said Mike Manhard, director of Metro-wide Engagement for Shelter & Housing, an organization that forms partnerships to address housing issues. The January conversation will be the first step to develop a better system to house people going through a crisis, he said.
Suburban residents who lose their homes often end up at metro shelters, like the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul. At least 185 Dakota County residents stayed at the center last year, Catholic Charities data show.
“We’re sending a lot of people into the metro because we don’t have enough space,” said Rebecca Bowers, who coordinates Heading Home Dakota County, part of a statewide coalition to address homelessness.
Many people aren’t comfortable going to shelters in the Twin Cities and are left with unsafe options.
Scott Weisfeld and his partner have been staying in his camper, which they park overnight in a parking lot. They lost their place in February, and before they bought the camper, Weisfeld said they slept in his pickup truck.
A group that helps homeless youth in the county recently asked people to donate sleeping bags that work in zero-degree weather.
“It’s bizarre,” said Andrea Roske-Metcalfe of Grace Lutheran Church in Apple Valley. “We bring sleeping bags so kids can sleep on benches in the winter.”
Reasons behind the closing
Dakota County got word in July that Cochran was about to close its shelter.
“That really caused quite a crisis,” Bowers said, but the nonprofit delayed the closing until April 2016 and has told the county it would hold off even longer and analyze its next steps.
“We want to be a good player,” said Executive Director Rick Terzick. “It’s not like we’re throwing people out on the streets. We want to look at our business model.”
The nonprofit was created four decades ago to run a detox center in Hastings and has added treatment programs that accept people from across the state. It started offering housing for homeless people in 2010. Clients stay for one to seven months on average, and more than half were recently released from prison, said shelter coordinator Kenny Johnson.
Instead of providing housing, Terzick wants to focus on counseling and treatment for people who have experienced trauma and are struggling with mental health and substance abuse.
Cochran is not the best location for a shelter, he said. The shelter is in the same building as Cochran’s addiction treatment facilities. It isn’t ideal to put people who are trying to get clean next to people who need shelter but may not be sober, Terzick said.
The site is also disconnected from the Twin Cities. Lack of public transportation to the shelter is its biggest problem, Cochran resident Bill Sitko said.
Sitko, 46, ended up at the shelter on Oct. 5. “I think people are benefiting from being here, I really do,” he said. “If you work with the program, it’s going to work with you.”
Bus service was one factor brought up by faith leaders as they discussed future shelter sites Thursday. In addition to finding a substitute for Cochran’s shelter, they are looking at ways to house women and young adults.
They considered a model that was added last year in Scott and Carver counties, where churches host homeless families. They also brought up potential sites, like old churches, motels and commercial properties, that could be converted into a shelter.