Dakota County project addresses suburban homelessness

- A group of leaders have joined forces to tackle the growing issue of homelessness in the suburban sprawls of Dakota County.

There's a misconception that the issue only exists in Minneapolis or St. Paul, but data suggests that one-third of Minnesota’s homeless are in our suburbs.

The suburbs of Dakota County are seen as comfortable places to settle down, but even there, hundreds lack a fundamental need -- a home.

“What Dakota County has been seeing is an increase of people contacting the county saying, ‘I have nowhere to sleep tonight.’” said Monica Nilsson, an advocate for the homeless.

53-year-old Rick Casey of Apple Valley was for years one of the unlikely faces of suburban homelessness.

“I’m a Gopher, did business and English, business for the pocket, English for the soul,” he said. “

Then, in 2011, Casey’s life began to spiral.

“I’d gone through a divorce, my family had stepped in, bought a house for me to live in after my divorce, I had a falling out with my family, and found myself being removed from the house and having everything given away by my family to goodwill,” he said.

Casey said he thinks one of the biggest problems homeless people face is a lack of support. Since 2013, Casey had been on the streets, staying in some of the darker corners of Apple Valley and neighboring Eagan.

“I would just tuck around the corner here, put my backpack down and use that as a pillow,” he said.

When he wasn’t walking the streets, Casey would board public transit to stay warm and hide between strip mall dumpsters.

“This is what you’re going to find homeless people after 11 at night trying to tuck away in when they can’t get into a shelter,” Casey said.

He was far from alone. According to the Center City Housing Corporation, on any given night across Dakota County, anywhere from 60-90 homeless families go unsheltered.

Fortunately, people like Pastor John Matthews took notice.

“A number of our churches noticed an increasing number of homeless people,” Matthews said. “Some were sleeping in the backside of our church in the cold of winter, but [also during] all seasons, really.”

With the help of leaders at Grace Lutheran Church and homeless advocates like Monica Nilsson, Casey is a part of an effort to house the homeless—the Dakota County Emergency Shelter Project. Here, he’s a welcome board member.

“The coalition of faith communities realized there is a moral imperative to address this,” Nilsson said. “Being a part of our committee has not only been an asset for us, but an asset for his well-being.”

Through the project and coordinated entry, a federal mandate to establish housing for those struggling in rural areas, Casey received a cherished gift this holiday season – a new home.

In a condo with a roommate and a renewed sense of purpose, Casey now takes the venture back into normalcy.

“It’s a stepping stone for me to get back to a normal life,” he said. “It’s given me a little extra in my step because I feel like I’m doing something, I’m being part of society again.”

But, first, Casey decided to take care of his health.

“I’m now taking 16 prescriptions, and I’m seeing a cardiologist, a urologist, neurologist, gastroenterologist, primary doctor, therapist, psychiatrist and a neuropsychologist  - and that’s all from basically being homeless,” he said

Casey is also unloading a goal that’s just as important to him as staying alive - to again be an active part of his two children’s lives.

The project is now seeking property in Dakota County to support the hundreds of families that remain unhoused.

To support the effort contact: DakotaAdultShelter@gmail.com

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