Churches, chocolate, volunteers fight exurban homelessness

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Prime rib, roasted chicken and vegetarian dinners and a “lethal” dose of chocolate come together on Saturday, Feb. 22, at Isanti for an important fundraiser for New Pathways Inc. to fight homelessness, hunger and related human problems in Isanti and Chisago counties on the northern fringe of the Twin Cities area.

In this case, doing good for the broader community comes with having fun, including good food and a dinner theater production of “Death by Chocolate.” While New Pathways has helped hundreds of families and about 900 children over the years, the service organization and volunteers from 23 area churches have had to turn away 645 households that needed help, said Mary Westlund, program manager and family educator for the Cambridge-based organization.

The housing market collapse is easing, but the evidence only show in data on foreclosures and home sales, she said. Housing needs of families with children don’t seem to be going away. “We’ve always had a shortage of affordable rental property. That hasn’t improved,” she added.

The neighborhood where Westlund and her husband live has largely turned over in the past five years, she said. Most houses were either foreclosed on or were walked away from when their values fell far underwater, she said. New families are moving in behind the previous owners, capitalizing on crashed home values. There is still one home in the neighborhood vacant from a foreclosure this past year.

This recycling of homes is good for the local community, Westlund added. But it isn’t getting the homeless into new digs. One of her tasks at work these days is trying to find another area church that can convert Sunday school rooms or other facilities into temporary shelter space for two weeks a year.

The bottom line for Isanti County’s housing scene: Foreclosures have come down. The need for housing help hasn’t.