EDITOR’S NOTE: The Dispatch agreed to withhold the last names of subjects in this story at their request.

This is what homelessness in Brainerd can look like: a family of five, living in a camper after job loss prompted the decision to either make a car payment or pay rent.

Brainerd residents Chad and Amy found themselves and their children without a home after they were forced to make this choice. Facing eviction and no housing options they could afford, the family packed into a small RV, where they lived for about six months until recently landing a temporary one-bedroom apartment.

Amy, 39, faces multiple diagnoses of mental illness, which she said makes it difficult for her to maintain employment. Despite these challenges, she has been unable to qualify for Social Security Disability. Chad’s full-time job in the health care industry does not provide enough income to support the family, he said, including a 14-year-old, a 10-year-old and a 7-year-old. If they’d chosen to forego their car payment, 46-year-old Chad would’ve been unable to reliably get to and from his place of employment, placing their one remaining income at risk.

“A lot of people in Brainerd don’t realize there’s a problem, because they’re like us,” Amy said. “We weren’t like beggars on the street, we weren’t like in a tent city type thing like they have done in the Cities. So I do think a lot of people in this community don’t believe that there really is a homeless problem.

“… I think they need to realize that, you know, most people are just two paychecks away from being homeless. … Going through this experience, you learn that it could be a friend of yours that’s homeless, and they’re just not saying anything, because it is embarrassing to some people.”

Gauging the need

The couple were two of those who showed up Thursday, Jan. 23, at the Crow Wing County Land Services Building to participate in the annual point in time count. The nationwide event, conducted with the help of local partners, seeks to determine how many people in the U.S. are homeless. This, in turn, determines the level of funding provided to communities designated to address homelessness and is used as the basis for grant applications on behalf of governmental bodies and social service agencies.

Providers from a number of community organizations and from Crow Wing County Community Services lined the basement meeting room Thursday, offering information and applications for programs from which those in poverty may benefit. Those who completed the surveys, which ask where they slept the night before among a number of other questions, received a free meal along with a bag to take with them containing a number of other food items.

Rebecca Manning, housing program supervisor with Northern Pines Mental Health Center in Brainerd, assisted Chad and Amy with finding a temporary apartment for their family to live while they search for more permanent housing they can afford. She said the Northern Pines program has about 90 current clients — those suffering from some type of serious mental illness who are also experiencing housing instability or have no place to live at all. Many of these people face additional barriers, including chemical dependency issues or felony criminal convictions, that impact their ability to find safe and affordable housing, she said.

“There are some people that I know that are sleeping outside right now,” Manning said. “They don’t have income, or they have criminal records, so there’s no housing options for them. Actually, a lot of board and lodges (group homes) … won’t take people who have felonies. So if you have no income and have a felony, there’s not really any options, unless you have family or friends that will take you in.”

Amy Yochum, who works in the Northern Pines housing program with Manning, said hardly anyone she’s worked with faces just one obstacle to rising out of homelessness and poverty.

“People are so quick to judge, but if they sat down and did simple math, they’d see how difficult it can be,” Yochum said. “... I know frequently, I don’t say, ‘Everything is going to be OK.’ Because truthfully, I don’t know.”

Seeking shelter

Staying with friends or family — or couch hopping between locations — is called “doubling up,” and is one of the most common forms of homelessness in the rural areas of northern Minnesota. Those doubling up lack the protections of a lease and could be forced to leave at any time, without warning or the ability to respond. Yet, it isn’t as visible as those holding signs at street corners or lined up outside homeless shelters. And there is no homeless shelter within 60 miles of Brainerd for which people could line up. The nearest is located in St. Cloud and available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Chad and Amy said they wished there was a shelter they could’ve turned to in their time of need. Living in their cramped camper with three children and no running water, they improvised to take care of many of life’s necessities easily taken for granted — showering and using the bathroom, for example, were often done in public locations. They said they did the best they could to maintain as much normalcy as possible for their children, while also fearing what could happen if someone decided to remove them from their care.

“It’s hard being homeless when you’re just a single person, but when you’re a family, you have to make sure you stay within the guidelines of social services so you don’t get your kids taken away. But also maintaining some sort of normalcy for your kids, because you don't want that stress put on the kids,” Amy said. “They know that something’s wrong, that it’s not right. They know that you’re homeless, but we try to make it a little bit easier for them, so there’s not as much trauma to them as they get older. I mean, that was the difficult part, especially in winter, because it’s winter in Minnesota. It’s cold.”

Chad and Amy aren’t alone in their desire for improved sheltering options in the lakes area. Following the recent closure of the Brainerd location of New Pathways, a Cambridge-based nonprofit assisting homeless families with the help of local churches, a community-led push for establishing a shelter is gathering steam. Some of the same advocates in the room Thursday are participating in focused efforts to iron out short-term and long-term solutions to serving the homeless population.

In the meantime, there are people in the community facing tough choices just like Chad and Amy. Thursday, they left the land services building with a little more hope for their future. Amy said she learned about someone who could help her navigate the world of applying for Social Security Disability benefits in hopes she could qualify, providing her family with additional income.

“I always tell people, I’m not looking for a handout,” Amy said. “I’m looking for a hand up.”

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.