OWATONNA — Even though unemployment rates in southern Minnesota have dropped over the last few months, the number of homeless individuals in Steele County served by temporary homes like the Lily Sparrow House and the Hospitality House has not.

In fact, both homes have seen an increased need for housing over the last five years, and it doesn’t look like it will change anytime soon, local officials say.

“We’re still seeing the fallout from the recession, and it may be worse in some ways than before,” said Virginia Miller, a member of the Lily Sparrow House support group.

Although the homes serve different homeless populations, they have seen similar trends.

In 2008, the Lily Sparrow House, which serves homeless women and children, and the Hospitality House, which serves homeless men, opened their doors in Owatonna.

“We started at the seat of our pants because there was a need,” Miller said. “We thought it would be a temporary need.”

But the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation found that, after leveling off in the mid-2000s, the number of homeless people in Minnesota rose sharply in 2009 after counting 9,654 homeless adults, youth and children in shelters, transitional housing and on the streets.

And in 2012, the foundation found that number increased 6 percent with 10,214 homeless in Minnesota.

The need in Steele County also continued to increase.

In March 2012, Lily Sparrow started renting another house for more space.

“We usually have about 15 to 20 people each night between the two homes,” Miller said. “We’re near capacity most of the time.”

The Hospitality House used to be located on State Avenue, but in 2012, the board of directors purchased Steele County’s former Safe Harbor facility, which had nine more beds, totaling 15.

“We needed additional space,” said Joleen Sheerets, manager of Hospitality House. “We’ve been seeing more people every single year.”

The Hospitality House had 46 guest stays in 2008; 1,500 in 2009; 2,400 in 2010; 3,800 in 2011 and more than 5,100 in 2012. Sheerets expects this year the guest stays will top 6,000.

Sheerets said she’s had to turn people away and she’s had as many as 10 people on a waiting list.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said.

The Hospitality House doesn’t allow weapons, drugs or alcohol, and neither does the Lily Sparrow House.

“We don’t take everybody,” Miller said. “They have to be able to live in a community and follow a few rules.”

Miller and Sheerets attribute the homeless population in the Owatonna area to employment and housing costs.

“Low-cost housing is very hard to find and so are good full-time jobs, and, unfortunately, families are falling apart,” Miller said.

Sheerets said although there are jobs out there, people are still struggling.

“Wages have stayed stagnant, but rent remains high here in Owatonna,” she said. “It’s hard to find an apartment for less than $500 a month and one over that is hard to afford with a $9 an hour job.”

But both homes do what they can to help individuals get “back on their feet.”

Miller said the Lily Sparrow House works with other agencies like Steele County Social Services, the Salvation Army, the Work Force Center and others to help their residents.

Hospitality House does, too.

“At most shelters, you have to leave in the morning. We are unique,” Sheerets said. “We want to get people back on their feet, so we offer housing, laundry facilities, showers, some food and job-search help.”

And the Lily Sparrow House and the Hospitality House do this without government aid.

“We are donation driven and by the grace of God we stay open with whatever people bring us,” Sheerets said. “We truly appreciate every donation that we receive.”

Miller said the Lily Sparrow House receives donations from individuals, groups and churches.

Miller and Sheerets agreed that they’ve hoped the service wasn’t needed, but it continues to increase.

But the Lily Sparrow House and the Hospitality House will continue to be a place for people to call “home” as long as they are needed and supported.

“Most people have stereotypes of what homeless is, but its kids, neighbors, and adults,” Sheerets said. “It can happen to anyone, and we’re a safety net if it does.”

Reach reporter Ashley Stewart at 444-2378 or follow her on Twitter.com @OPPashley

Reach reporter Ashley Stewart at 444-2378 or follow her on Twitter.com @OPPashley

Owatonna People's Press reporter covering Steele County, Blooming Prairie and Medford government as well as health, transportation and community happenings. University of St. Thomas graduate.

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