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Some Bismarck city commissioners are skeptical about a proposal to help fund a permanent homeless shelter planned by the Missouri Slope Areawide United Way and Community Works of North Dakota, though some are optimistic about the project.

The United Way is developing a new "Center for Opportunity" facility in south Bismarck — what Executive Director Jena Gullo calls a “one-stop shop to help people out of poverty.” The organization plans to add 10,000 square feet to the 3,200-square-foot building at a cost of $2 million, which United Way plans to raise through donations.

It is asking Bismarck to fund one-fourth of the center’s annual $1 million operating budget. It also plans to seek funding from Mandan, Morton County and Burleigh County, and it has so far secured state and federal grant money totaling $177,000, along with $125,000 from the Otto Bremer Trust.

Some city commissioners said there needs to be more quantifiable information before they make a decision on contributing money. Mayor Steve Bakken said he wants to look at “hard numbers” on how the shelter could bring “offsets to police, fire, EMS and medical services.”

"I have a hard time saying, 'Here's $250,000 of taxpayer dollars for a project.' I understand the investment and the value coming back for a $1 million project,” Bakken said. “But when public health can put some numbers to that, and police and fire and EMS can put some offsetting number to that, then I can see it as an investment. And I think that's an investment that's very worthwhile."

Gullo said police would see a “dramatic increase” in calls for service without a shelter and that it would result in more police time, jail costs and emergency room visits.

“A chronically homeless person costs the community over $35,000 a year, but with the right services we can get that same person into supportive housing at a lesser cost of $10,000 per year,” she told the Tribune.

Commissioner Greg Zenker echoed Bakken's sentiment but also said a homeless shelter is “not a want, but a need” for the community.

“It was last fall when my child went running outside and there's a gentleman passed out outside his school. There were two police who had to come outside and take care of that, and (the man) was intoxicated,” he said. “But he was probably homeless as well. So if that person would have gone to another scenario like this, those police could have been somewhere else."

Commissioner Shawn Oban said he would be in favor of having a city staff member serving on United Way’s board.

"It would at least give me peace of mind knowing that somebody from the city is serving on that board," he said. "There has to be this collaborative piece in our community and we talk about it, and people talk about it, and there has been efforts made to do it, but I don't think everybody is playing nice in the sandbox for what needs to be done."

Whether United Way would be able to collaborate with other groups was another question brought up by some commissioners, given the recent troubled past of efforts to house the homeless in the area.

Gullo told the Tribune that 20 other nonprofits including Neighbor’s Network and Healthy Families have expressed interest in being a part of the center effort.

“The reason we’re doing this is because there has been a lack of collaboration,” she said.

Commissioner Nancy Guy expressed support for helping fund the shelter.

“I think that the United Way shelter is probably the best program I have seen proposed in years in terms of a comprehensive approach to this. And I think they're being smart to this because they are bringing their existing program into that building too, so that they'll have almost everything under one roof,” Guy said.

United Way plans to administer several of its programs in the building, from its annual Christmas gift program to a weekly backpack food program for nearly 1,300.

Guy said the location of the shelter has promise.

“It's in a really good spot in terms of being on the bus line, it's close to the low-income clinic, it's close to the low-income dental services, it's kind of within the triangle of the three lowest-income schools in the city,” she said.

Several community members spoke in favor of the proposal on Tuesday, including North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak, who volunteers for United Way. She said the organization ran out of food during her shift on Monday night, causing her to have to turn away a mom and her daughter.

“We wouldn’t have that problem with a more permanent shelter,” Fedorchak said. “It’s time for a more permanent solution that includes better facilities and services that can help address the core problems of these folks and set them on their path to independence.”

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Reach Andy Tsubasa Field at 701-250-8264 or andy.field@bismarcktribune.com.

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City Government Reporter