As Bismarck-Mandan nonprofit groups scramble to reopen a homeless shelter this winter, they’re working with an 80 percent cut in state homeless grants.

Action by the North Dakota Legislature cut funding for the North Dakota Homeless Grant through the Department of Commerce from $1.5 million for 2015-17 to $300,000 for 2017-19.

“I think the state sent a pretty clear message that homelessness is not necessarily a priority for them any more,” said April Fairfield, executive director for the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People.

Ruth Meiers Hospitality House, which closed its men’s emergency shelter the morning of Oct. 27, received no money through that grant program this year, compared with $42,100 in 2016, according to the Department of Commerce, which administers the grant.

Ruth Meiers Interim Executive Director Steve Neu said that grant program was not a direct factor in the decision to close the emergency shelter.

But the reduction is making it more difficult for other organizations trying to reopen a shelter for the winter, Fairfield said.

“Where others might have been able to try and step in and fill the gap, everyone now is really crunched,” Fairfield said. “It does make a huge difference.”

The North Dakota Homeless Grant began in 2013-15 with $2 million in one-time funding as the state was seeing an increase in homelessness along with the influx in population.

For the 2017-19 budget, former Gov. Jack Dalrymple recommended no money for the North Dakota Homeless Grant and Gov. Doug Burgum supported the recommendation. The governors’ budgets also eliminated other areas of one-time funding due to state budget shortfalls.

Legislators during the session added $300,000 for the grant program back into the budget as a line item in the Department of Commerce budget.

Homeless coalition members say they plan to seek additional funding for the program in the future.

“We have the models and the systems in place to really reduce and end homelessness in our state,” said Cody Schuler, executive director for the Fargo-Moorhead Coalition for Homeless People. “But we need to be able to increase the resources in the future.”

That grant program could potentially be increased in the future if it’s determined to be a cost-effective investment for taxpayers, Burgum said Friday.

“We don’t want to throw a lot of money at symptoms when we could spend money against underlying causes,” Burgum said.

In the meantime, Burgum said his administration is working to address homelessness through efforts to deal with addiction and through the Main Street Initiative, which aims to create vibrant communities.

City, county funding?

Members of the Missouri Valley Coalition for Homeless People are working to secure a location for a shelter to keep people out of the cold in Bismarck-Mandan this winter. In addition to finding a location, agencies are working to secure funding and a service provider to act as a fiscal agent.

Melanie Heitkamp, executive director of Youthworks, which serves runaway and homeless youth, said nonprofit agencies have stepped up to try to address the need, but now may seek funding from the city of Bismarck.

“I don’t think any longer we can do that without the help of the city,” Heitkamp said.

Coalition members also have discussed requesting funding from Mandan and Burleigh and Morton counties, but have yet to bring forward a formal proposal because the details of a shelter plan are still being finalized.

“There’s no question, there’s going to need to be money and from a number of sources to try to make this work,” Heitkamp said.

The 2017 Bismarck city budget included $16,500 for Ruth Meiers Hospitality House, which is considered the single point of entry for homeless people in Bismarck, said Gloria David, public information officer for the city. A total $2,750 is remaining in the budget this year.

It has yet to be determined if the Ruth Meiers emergency shelter closure would affect the organization’s status as the central point to direct homeless people, David said.

(Reach Amy Dalrymple at 701-250-8267 or Amy.Dalrymple@bismarcktribune.com)

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