Bob Hicks

Bob Hicks, a resident of Silver Creek Corner, looks over a garden plot outside his residence on Aug. 16 in Rochester. Silver Creek Corner is a home for formerly homeless chronic alcoholics. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

Bob Hicks wasn’t planning to take a room at Silver Creek Corner.

“At first, I wasn’t going to come here,” he said of the group residential housing for homeless chronic alcoholics. “Then it got 10 degrees outside, so I decided to come in,”

Even after he moved into the 40-unit facility on the east side of Rochester, he wasn’t convinced he’d be there long.

“The first summer I was here, I was ready to get out once it got warmer,” he said, noting it was meeting his girlfriend — another resident — that convinced him to stay.

Seven years later, he’s one of nine Silver Creek Corner clients who have been housed there from nearly the first day of operations.

Entry into system is first step home

Olmsted County Deputy Administrator Paul Fleissner said the result has been a reduction of costs elsewhere in the county system.

For the 12 months prior to the nine clients entering the Silver Creek Center program, they racked up a total of 30 county-funded detox days, according to county data. Last year, two days were recorded between the nine clients.

When Silver Creek Corner opened, the expected reduction in costs for routine detox visits and other county expenses related to having people living on the streets was a key motivator.

The facility is on the path to produce the predicted savings by reducing the estimated monthly cost of $3,933 in public service for homeless alcoholics to $1,677. With housing costs at nearly $1,400 a month, the county still potentially saves hundreds each month for every client it houses.

County Board Chairman Jim Bier, who was a critic of the project when it was first proposed, said the results can’t be disputed.

“I thought it was going to be something to cost us more money and not save us money,” Bier said. “However, that thing really has turned out good, it has done what was advertised.”

CHANGING REALITIES

While Hicks said his drinking hasn’t landed him in county custody for detox, he said stable housing has helped him reduce his drinking, often going weeks without consuming alcohol.

Nancy Cashman, supportive housing development director for Center City Housing, which manages Silver Creek Corner, said that’s common.

“Drinking really changes,” she said. “It stops from being ridiculously harmful to them to being more manageable.”

Hicks said it’s the result of having a safe place to sleep and not needing alcohol or drugs to escape the reality of being homeless.

“The street is very stressful in every way you can think of,” he said, noting increased alcohol consumption is how he coped with the day-to-day pressure to survive.

With a long history of alcohol use, Hicks often tells people he once logged eight years of sobriety.

“Then I turned 9,” he said.

The eldest of 11 children, he said alcohol becomes a way to cope with the pressures of helping care for his siblings.

“I never had a childhood,” he said. “I had to act grown up.”

He faced similar pressures in the Army, where he eventually led a 30-man platoon.

It all helped prove alcohol was a way of coping with life’s stresses, so when the Southwest Missouri native unexpectedly ended up homeless in Rochester, drinking became a logical response.

Janie Holliday, Silver Creek Corner’s site director, said that by providing a safe place to live without the pressures that can fuel excessive drinking, the house offers a new perspective and new paths for a variety of men and women.

“They begin to live again, instead of just surviving,” she said. “You don’t need to be that inebriated to live, you just needed to be inebriated to survive.”

MORE OPTIONS

Silver Creek Corner isn’t alone in providing paths from homelessness to stable housing.

Several facilities and individual apartments are geared to meeting the unique needs of people suffering long-term homelessness. In all, they provide more than 400 beds, through a variety of services, from dedicated apartments in complexes built with state tax credits to facilities created by nonprofits.

That’s beyond the 79 shelter beds available in Rochester and the numerous beds dedicated to people transitioning from substance abuse or mental health treatment.

Trent Fluegel, the county’s housing resource coordinator, said putting a finger on the exact number of homeless residents in Rochester is a challenge. Definitions can differ between agencies, with some counting people who are taken in by friends and others limiting the definition to people with nowhere to turn. Even the state and federal governments offer differing definitions.

Fluegel said a count earlier this year indicated 1,920 people in Olmsted County were struggling with homelessness. Nearly half of those are children.

HEADING HOME

The problem isn’t new.

In a 2008 Heading Home Olmsted County report, former Olmsted County Commissioner Judy Ohly wrote: “The face of homelessness is not always recognizable to the public, but for those that work with poverty, youth, veterans, mental illness, chemical dependency and persons being released from prison, the deficiencies are known.”

Fleissner said the plan outlined in that report helped address some of the deficiencies, but the work continues.

“We became a lot more intentional around housing,” he said of the Heading Home effort that originated at a state level under former Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

In recent months, however, the face of homelessness, in part, has become more recognizable as people turn to public skyways for shelter at night and the available beds continue to be overwhelmed in many programs.

Still, Fleissner said the work that started more than a decade ago has produced results. It led to efforts that brought Duluth-based Center City to town. In addition to overseeing Silver Creek Corner, the agency manages 18 beds at The Francis, provides housing for 30 homeless families and 25 youths between 16 and 21 years old at Gage East, and is working with the county to create supportive housing for 30 people struggling with mental illness.

The report also broadened the discussion to take a look at affordable housing and open community conversations on the issues, which led to the county taking over the local Housing and Redevelopment Authority and enacting a levy to address needs.

More available housing provides more options for programs that work with landlords to help formerly homeless individuals and families pay their rents.

Fleissner said the work pays off in helping connect people to services that can put them on the right track.

“I never dreamed when going into social work I’d spend so much time on housing, but if people don’t have the basics, you can’t do the social work,” he said.

CONTINUING CONVERSATIONS

Yet, he said he looks forward to growing the conversation.

Alongside ongoing county efforts, Rochester Mayor Kim Norton’s push to address homelessness has fueled new partnerships, enlisting business leaders, nonprofits and local advocates to seek a solution.

“Obviously, the mayor has raised the flag on this issue across our community in a way that I don’t think we’ve ever had those kinds of conversations,” Fleissner said.

In the coming weeks, many will meet with consultants from the Corporation for Supportive Housing, which has been enlisted to help develop a long-term approach to address community concerns.

The county and city are each funding a third of the approximately $48,000 in consultant fees, with Mayo Clinic, the Rochester Chamber of Commerce and other private entities pitching in the remaining third.

“I’m looking forward to learning together with our partners, our community and the folks we serve,” he said of the upcoming effort.

He noted new conversations could provide more community-based solutions, similar to the Heading Home discussions that led to the creation of Silver Creek Corner and new opportunities for residents like Hicks.

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