Willmar resident Heather Solberg is grateful not to be included in this year’s homeless count. Solberg and her two-year-old son Maddox became homeless two days after Christmas. Solberg, 21, had moved to Willmar, MN from Wisconsin at the encouragement of a friend who told her that jobs were more plentiful there. Solberg stated she “applied for every job I could think of,” but with no luck. Solberg and her son stayed with a friend for about a month until the landlord asked them to vacate the property so that his daughter could move in. At that point, she became homeless.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Solberg said. A friend told her to find a shelter, but Solberg then learned that the closest one was in St. Cloud. “I called the shelter, but it scared me to death that I was even making the call,” she said. She was told that the shelter often fills up and that, even if she made the sixty-mile trek to St. Cloud, they couldn’t guarantee her a bed.
“As a parent, that gives you the worst feeling in the world that you can’t provide for your child,” Solberg said. “It breaks your heart that you’re at rock bottom and you have nowhere to turn to.”
Fortunately, another friend referred Solberg to Heartland Community Action Agency, Inc. and Lutheran Social Services, who paid for Solberg to stay in a motel until they could help her locate housing. Solberg then started working with Corie Haverly, a transitional housing coordinator at the Willmar branch of Lutheran Social Services.
Although the agency was able to secure housing for Solberg, Haverly expressed frustration at the lack of community support to fight homelessness or even to acknowledge it exists in their town. “People here wear blinders,” Haverly said. A survey conducted in January 2008 located 143 homeless people in southwestern Minnesota, many of them victims of domestic violence or struggling with severe mental illness.
A few years back, the community opposed creating a soup kitchen, arguing that Willmar does not have a significant need for food resources and that opening a soup kitchen would attract homeless people from other towns, Solberg said. “If you’re in the field and know what’s going on, it’s different,” she said.
Despite these hurdles, Solberg was able to get the help she needed. Lutheran Social Services and Heartland Community Action, Inc. paid for Solberg’s security deposit and first month’s rent. Lutheran Social Services will continue to pay seventy-five percent of Solberg’s rent for six months until she can get back on her feet. Solberg recently found a job at Subway working about thirty hours a week at minimum wage with no health insurance, but plans to take a C.N.A. licensing exam soon. “I have no idea where I would be without the help of LSS,” Solberg said. “I’m just so grateful.”
Madeleine Baran is a freelance journalist, specializing in labor and poverty issues. Her articles have appeared in The New York Daily News, Dollars & Sense, Clamor, The New Standard, and other publications.