Regional homeless awareness effort nears home stretch

MARSHALL — Last year the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership embarked on an arts-related project centered around a documentary-style portrayal of the mostly unseen homeless residents of Greater Minnesota.

About six months later, research collected in the project’s formative stages has become the basis of a 30-minute script draft read Tuesday at the Marshall-Lyon County Library.

The script review, which was open to the public, led to feedback that will be considered in the development of a final version this spring. A finished script will then form the basis of a set of performances throughout the region this summer.

A flyer for the reading includes a working title, “the Prairie Homeless Companion,” a tie-in to the storytelling of well-known humorist Garrison Keillor with the key difference of focusing on typical homeless experiences.

Assistance with production work and on-stage portrayals of fictional homeless people will be provided by the Zamya Theater group based in Minneapolis. Some of the cast members are people who have personal experience with being homeless.

Zamya Artistic Director Maren Ward said the regional homeless project is a chance for Zamya to branch out into a rural region.

“Homelessness and other social concerns are an important part of our mission,” Ward said. “It’s the first time we’ve been part of a project in a rural area. Homelessness is a great topic for that because of how it’s less visible here than in metro areas. Instead of noticing homeless people on the street, rural residents usually have to hear about someone who sleeps on friend’s couch or has to be a professional who gets referrals for assistance.”

Although homelessness isn’t as visible in rural areas, she said those who lack any kind of permanent housing have many similarities to urban counterparts.

Causes for homelessness tend to involve two or more factors that occur at once. The list can include unemployment, unplanned health issues, domestic violence, and chemical dependency.

Ashley Hanson, who works with PlaceBase Production based out of the Twin Cities and contracts with the housing partnership, said every homeless individual has a detailed personal story. When it comes to a fully documented personal history, there are as many variations as there are people with homeless experiences.

Whether or not someone needs help from a public or private organization often comes down to how much of a connection he or she has with others in the same surroundings.

“Some who are homeless often get at least short-term help from relatives and friends,” Hanson said.

“People who have no history in their current location often face more immediate issues with basic needs. They have no built-in support system, nothing to fall back on.”

She said a large amount of detailed personal accounts compiled in the research stage of the project are proving helpful in working toward an hour-long performance that’s fictional but based somewhat on the real-life accounts.

The next step is to take the 30-minute draft and expand it into a longer script,” she said. “We’ll look at what’s been well covered in the draft and what other information we can incorporate to round it out. The ultimate goal is to have a short portrayal that’s well-rounded enough to shed light on the realities of being homeless in part of rural America.”

Justin Vorbach, who is working with the performance project for the housing partnership as a community coordinator, said current awareness efforts are well-timed in terms of the continued homeless trend in rural parts of Minnesota.

When asked about a 10 percent statewide homelessness increase reported in the news media this winter, he said the statistic is based on a one-day count conducted every three years by the Wilder Foundation of Minnesota.

He added that additional studies aim to further document the short term and long term homeless trend.

Thus far, however, data indicates that numbers in both the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota are substantial to the point of creating a need for awareness projects and action plans.

“A big part of the problem is the lack of affordable housing,” Vorbach said. “If someone doesn’t have a dependable car, he or she needs to live close to a job or be able to reach it with public transportation in order to be employed. In rural areas, that can lead to situations where there’s either a distance issue or too much of a housing cost.”

Doug and Sharla Bengtson of Wood Lake, two of the guests at the script reading, said they attended because of an “insatiable desire to learn” about current social concerns such as homelessness that aren’t being fully addressed.

They, along with their family, were the last owners of the former weekly Wood Lake News newspaper in the 1990s. They’ve also learned about some of the not-easily-seen challenges facing many Minnesotans through volunteer work, which includes being two of the founders and long-term participants in the Wood Lake area’s Lighter Side Clown Club.

“There’s definitely a need for awareness about homeless people in our region,” Doug Bengtson said. “There’s not enough of an understanding about their situation. They have to worry from one week to the next about meeting their basic needs.”


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