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15 years in, Ruth's House continues sheltering women in crisis

Ruth Hickey believes her vision for Ruth’s House of Hope, a shelter for women in crisis situations, was divinely inspired.

When she told the administrative assistant at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church about her idea over 15 years ago, a group of women gathered to compile a list of people and items to fulfill the vision. Hickey particularly remembers when Kate Monson, then a student at St. Olaf College researching transitional housing at the HOPE Center, joined the meeting at the last minute.

“After that, people just came,” said Hickey, now executive director of the shelter. “It was an orchestration of many people.”

The group became a 501c3 within just a couple of months, and the facility, at 219 Fourth Ave. NW, in Faribault, opened Aug. 2, 2004.

In the past decade and a half, thousands have been involved with the organization, which has served over 1,700 women and children.

A sturdy shelter

Ruth’s House boarders are female heads of household in crisis situations, whether it’s domestic abuse, addiction or poverty, and their children. The 24-hour support staff help residents address the issues that brought them to homelessness and connect them with resources to help them find safe and permanent housing.

Hickey said the program starts as an emergency shelter for 45 days, then residents can move into a transitional shelter program for six months. Staff evaluates residents at 30, 60 and 90 days. According to Hickey, the average length of stay is three to four months with six months as the maximum.

“Sometimes we offer extensions based on situations,” said Hickey. “Maybe they’re two months out of getting the money they need for an apartment.”

The shelter continues to rely on local contributions and foundation grants, so Ruth’s House needs to raise $350,000 annually to keep it open. Every year, Hickey said community donations are instrumental for keeping Ruth’s House running.

“We want to grow because the need for services have exploded,” said Hickey “We have a continued waiting list, so what we’re doing right now is we’re trying to raise more money and hope to expand.”

Through a long-term support of housing program funded by HUD (U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development), Ruth’s House also offers nine apartment units off campus. Ruth’s House provides rental services for homeless families as well as families with a member who has a disability.

Currently, Ruth’s House is in the process of forming a potential partnership with Northfield Housing and Development Authority to manage two rental properties that would provide long-term housing to Northfield clients.

Hickey said the Rapid Re-Housing program and a collaboration with the HOPE Center for victims of domestic violence also help Ruth’s House meet its needs for more resources.

HOPE Center Executive Director Erica Staab-Absher has worked with residents of Ruth’s House throughout the years. Where Ruth’s House provides shelter, the HOPE Center helps with advocacy and assists clients with court processes, safety planning and the next steps out of a domestic violence situation. The two organizations work together to equip victims with what they need, she said.

“The way I kind of look at it is as a Venn diagram where our clients are in the middle,” said Staab-Absher. “… We couldn’t do it without one another.”

Casey Ylinen, a previous resident at Ruth’s House, stayed at the facility for four months with her children and worked with the HOPE Center to navigate her situation. She didn’t know what to expect when Ruth’s House took her in, but what she found was more than a place to sleep at night.

“It was an amazing experience,” said Ylinen. “The staff was supportive and resourceful. I made some friends along the way and still stay in touch with them. It was a well-needed resource, and it was a last minute Hail Mary, and they were able to get me in when there was no where else to go.”

A generous community

The community has three opportunities to give back to Ruth’s House in the upcoming weeks, starting with the sixth annual Hope and Harmony Benefit Show hosted by the Lakelanders Chorus. The free concert was 4 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 13 at River Valley Church and featured the Benson Family Singers bluegrass/gospel group. Free-will donations benefitted Ruth’s House, the HOPE Center and a third charity that helps women in crisis, Whispers of Hope.

A concert that benefits Ruth’s House specifically is 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 3 at Northfield Middle School and features the award-winning Tonic Sol Fa a capella quartet from the Twin Cities. Tickets are $20 and will be available at the door but may be purchased in advance at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Faribault and The Rare Pair in Northfield.

Finally, Ruth’s House opens its doors to the public for its annual Give to the Max Day Thursday, Nov. 14. Details on this event will soon be available at ruthshousemn.org.

“We are so grateful for the community support,” said Hickey “It has changed so many lives.”

Panel discussion highlights nation's voting issues

A former MSNBC producer and a National Review columnist made their way to Carleton College for a lively discussion on the issues of election integrity and voter suppression in the United States Oct. 9.

Amid concerns about voter suppression and integrity, the liberal-leaning American Issues Initiative has released a documentary titled “Rigged: The Voter Suppression Playbook.” Largely shot during the chaotic and polarizing 2016 election and hosted by Emmy-Award winning actor Jeffrey Wright, the film documents 10 years of what it characterizes efforts to undermine democracy.

Wednesday’s screening and panel discussion was sponsored by the Carleton College Political Science Department and the League of Women Voters of Northfield and Cannon Falls.

Documentary tells a story

The film charges that efforts to undermine democracy came as a backlash to Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election victory. Aided by the deep unpopularity of former President George W. Bush, Obama won an unprecedented victory with strong support from African-American and Latino voters.

In 2010, saddled with a weak economy and unpopular new health care law, Democrats lost more than 700 seats across the country. In Minnesota, Republican Tom Emmer lost the Governor’s race to Democrat Mark Dayton after a recount, but Republicans gained both branches of the legislature.

Although Dayton’s victory prevented Republicans from executing the strategy in Minnesota, Republicans in many states were highly effective at drawing districts to maximize their electoral chances. In 2012, Republicans won a comfortable 234-201 majority in the U.S. House even though Democrats won the popular vote.

In the two years following the 2010 elections, legislators in more than 30 states made an effort to strengthen Voter ID. Strong Voter ID laws were enacted across the country, including in Presidential swing states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida.

Supporters of the Voter ID laws argued that they were necessary to minimize voter fraud. Critics argued that incidents of voter fraud, especially the kinds that could be prevented by photo ID requirements, are extremely rare.

Furthermore, critics fear that requiring a photo ID to vote could have discriminatory effects. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 25% of African-American adults have no photo ID, compared to 8% of white adults.

In the 2013 case of Shelby v Holder, the Supreme Court struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act which required certain jurisdictions to secure pre-clearance from the Department of Justice before making changes to voting rules.

The majority, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, argued that because the data on which determined which states and areas should be subject to pre-clearance is more than 40 years old. After the ruling, several states covered under the measure rushed to pass new voting laws.

Among the most restrictive of the new voting laws was North Carolina’s. Passed after just three days of debate, the bill enacted a strict form of Photo ID, ended pre-registration for 16 and 17 year olds, reduced early voting and ended same-day voter registration and added additional restrictions.

Parts of the law were subsequently struck down by courts, including the Voter ID requirement, which was subsequently reinstated by North Carolina voters in a 2018 referendum. Courts also took issue with the redistricting map North Carolina’s Republican legislature instituted after the 2010 elections, forcing a redraw.

However, as hundreds of judges appointed by President Trump and confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate make their way onto the nation’s benches, the courts are quickly becoming more hesitant to intervene in election law and gerrymandering cases.

Conservative columnist responds

While co-executive producer Tim Smith largely let the film he helped to create speak for itself, longtime National Review columnist John Fund argued that although he didn’t disagree with much of the content, he said it was carefully curated to fit a certain narrative.

“If I hadn’t written four books on this subject, I would have watched this documentary and hidden under a desk, because I’d be so scared for our democracy,” he said.

A longtime conservative columnist, Fund collaborated with Rush Limbaugh on his bestselling 1992 book, “The Way Things Ought To Be.” Fund most recently tackled the subject of voter fraud with his 2012 book “Who’s Counting?: How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk,” co-written with Hans von Spakovsky.

Fund raised concerns over election fraud, citing recent cases in the critical swing states of Michigan and Pennsylvania. Just last month, a city clerk from a Detroit suburb was accused of altering absentee ballots in an effort to get them thrown out and slapped with six felony charges.

In announcing the indictments, Michigan’s Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Knessel said that they believed the crimes committed by Southfield City Clerk Sherika Hawkins to be an isolated incident. All three are members of the Democratic Party.

In Pennsylvania, a glitch in the state’s electronic drivers license registration system enabled around 100,000 non citizens to register to vote over a 20 year period. A subsequent review by the Pennsylvania Department of State found that at most, 544 ballots may have been cast illegally out of more than 93 million.

Fund touted the “Freedom Card” as one way to increase confidence in the election system. The Freedom Card would be a Social Security card with a photo on it that could act as a form of photo ID for those who don’t have more traditional form of photo ID.

The idea has been explored by Presidents Clinton, Obama and Trump, but none have yet authorized it. However, while a “Freedom Card” might prevent voter impersonation, the number of documented voter impersonation cases is minuscule.

A photo ID requirement would not address issues of election fraud such as the Michigan incident or the recent election fraud in North Carolina. In North Carolina’s 9th District, Republican Mark Harris’s 2018 election victory was thrown out after an illegal ballot harvesting scheme run by a convicted felon was discovered.

Adjustments to city's rental code would relax some restrictions

Faribault’s City Council has granted preliminary approval to changes to the city’s rental licensing program. The changes are an effort to bring the ordinance in line with national standards, and would address concerns from the community and those identified by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing the city over portions of its rental ordinance.

Under the proposed new guidelines, the city will move from using the 2006 version of the property maintenance code to the 2018 version, exempt children under the age of 2 from the apartment occupancy limit, include a guidance sheet from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on renting to persons with criminal records with the training manual given to Faribault landlords at crime free training sessions, and includes additional language clarifying the rights of tenants.

“These changes have been identified because as we’ve administered the program, we’ve realized that certain areas need to be addressed,” said the city’s Community & Economic Development Director Deanna Kuennen.

A crime free multi-housing program was additionally explored by the council in 2007 and 2008 but ultimately dropped as the city’s revenues fell due to the late 2000s recession. The effort gained new momentum when the city hired Police Chief Andy Bohlen in 2012.

Bohlen’s belief that the city needed a crime free multi-housing program was influenced by his time as commander of Dakota County’s Drug Task Force. Bohlen observed that many communities in Dakota County had repeated problems with the same rental properties.

While the program wasn’t perfect, Bohlen saw that cities with active crime free housing programs were able to be more proactive in dealing with crime and reduce the crime rate. Ultimately, a crime free multi-housing program was implemented Faribault’s rental licensing program in 2015.

Before the program was implemented, the city’s crime rate was in the top 10-15% of cities across Minnesota. Since its adoption, crime has dropped by 13% and is now much closer to the state average.

“We’ve seen a dramatic decrease in crime, and I think that has an association with the crime free multi-housing ordinance,” said Bohlen.

The rental licensing program has achieved significant successes in ensuring that hundreds of Faribault families have safe housing with biennial housing inspections. Since implementation of the program, staff have identified 531 dwellings in violation of the property maintenance code out of 2,804 examined.

However, the ACLU filed suit against the city last year, arguing that the reductions in crime in rental properties were achieved through more sinister means. Among the measures included in the rental housing ordinance were mandatory criminal background checks.

The ACLU charged that Faribault law enforcement encouraged renters to illegally discriminate against renters and rental applicants with criminal history. The city of Faribault has vociferously denied the claim, stating that the background check was made mandatory to ensure that landlords were making “informed decisions” about who they rent to.

Making it harder for people with criminal records to obtain rentals could drive them deeper into a cycle of poverty and potentially encourage a return to crime. And because African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans are more likely to have a criminal record than white Americans, the ACLU charged that the city’s policy was ultimately discriminatory.

According to 2016 statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, African-American adults are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated than whites and Latinos are 3.1 times as likely. In large part, policing tactics have often disproportionately targeted people of color.

A 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union showed that African-Americans are nearly eight times as likely as whites to be arrested in Minnesota for marijuana use, even though African-Americans and whites use marijuana at similar rates. That’s more than twice the disparity the ACLU found nationwide.

Studies have also shown that prosecutors are more likely to aggressively prosecute people of color. A 2013 analysis published in the Yale Law Review found that federal prosecutors are twice as likely to charge African Americans with offenses that carry a mandatory minimum sentence compared to whites in a comparable situation.

The ACLU also raised concerns that the city’s move to limit the number of residents per rental property has had a “adverse disparate impact on Somali members of the Faribault community.” The ACLU said that because Somali families in Faribault tend to be large, they would be more likely to be impacted by the ordinance.

If forced to move out of their housing because of the ordinance, large families could struggle to find suitable, affordable housing. Faribault has an extreme housing shortage, with a vacancy rate of less than 1%.

The city again pushed back hard against the ACLU’s claims, declaring that the allegations described in the ACLU’s report were “unsubstantiated, inaccurate and contrary to law.”

The city has continued to insist that the rental code is non-discriminatory and fully permissible under the Constitution and the Fair Housing Act. Nonetheless, the revised code approved Tuesday includes several measures seemingly designed to address the ACLU’s concerns.

While definitely insisting that the ordinance was never intended to prevent landlords from renting to tenants with a criminal record, city officials acknowledged that some landlords may have interpreted it that way.

In order to ensure that landlords act in accordance with the protections of the Fair Housing Act, the city’s new ordinance will add a guidance sheet from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on renting to persons with criminal records to the training manual given to Faribault landlords at crime free training sessions.

The number of occupants allowed per apartment could also rise for some Faribault renters. In 2014, the city adopted an occupancy standard of “2+1,” which set the occupancy limit for each rental at two persons per bedroom, plus one additional person.

The “2+1” standard was slightly looser than the HUD’s recommended two persons per bedroom. The proposed new ordinance would make that limit slightly looser, exempting children under 2.

In a prepared statement, Minnesota ACLU Legal Director Teresa Nelson said that while she’s pleased that the city of Faribault is open to changing to the Rental Housing Ordinance, the proposal remains inadequate.

While Nelson said that although the change to the occupancy restriction exempting individuals under the age of 2 is welcome, she argued that the ordinance still disproportionately affects Somali families. The ACLU believes that city officials knew that the restriction would hurt Somali families disproportionately when they enacted it.

While the city will now include the HUD memo in its training manuals, the ACLU said the content of the HUD memo needs to be explicitly included in the city’s ordinance and the crime-free multi-housing training session itself.

Nelson further characterized the city’s argument that the ordinance was never intended to prevent landlords from renting to people with criminal histories as “disingenuous at best.” She said that if the city really means what it says, then it has a responsibility to “replace its background check requirement with one that allows consideration of only relevant crimes, expressly excludes consideration of arrests and allows a prospective tenant the opportunity for an individualized assessment.”

“The city has an obligation under the Fair Housing Act to not discriminate in housing on the basis of, among other traits, race and national origin,” she added. “It is the city’s failure to meet this obligation — not the landlords — that is driving this lawsuit.”

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, has not yet been set for trial.

Jacob Swanson / By JACOB SWANSON jswanson@faribault.com 

Faribault coach Ned Louis, seen after a 2018 matchup against Northfield, hopes the Falcons can find consistency in the final weeks of the regular season. (Faribault Daily News file photo)