Providing a helping hand

Shelter fills area need

Photos by Kim Fundingsland/MDN ABOVE: Mike Zimmer, Minot Area Men’s Winter Refuge executive director, checks on items donated to the homeless shelter. The shelter is open November through April.

Five bedrooms, 15 beds, three bathrooms, a well furnished kitchen and a comfortable television room. No, it’s not a description of a house for sale but rather a house that serves a real need in the Minot area.

It is the Men’s Winter Refuge, a place where men can find necessary assistance when dealing with unintended consequences in their lives. The refuge is home to men intent on improving their personal situations.

“The guy who stays here is either working or looking for work and, for whatever reason, he doesn’t have a place to stay,” explained Mike Zimmer, executive director. “There’s lots of different reasons why they end up here. A typical guy ends up here long enough to save up for a first month’s rent and get into his own place or go back home where there’s family.”

The Men’s Winter Refuge is open from Nov. 1 to April 30 each year. Hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. No exceptions.

“If they come to stay at our shelter, they know ahead of time what the deal is,” said Zimmer. “I tell them if they are working, or seriously looking for work and trying to get back on their feet, then this is for you. If you are looking for a free place to hang out it’s probably not going to work for you here.”

Unemployment, an inability to pay bills, is a common reason behind a person seeking a helping hand from the Men’s Winter Refuge. So too is substance abuse. Zimmer calls those situations the top two reasons for men wishing to enter the Minot shelter as well as shelters elsewhere. Locally, most men accepted into the shelter are referred from agencies in the city.

“A lot of our residents are referred to us from the Minot Area Homeless Coalition. We also get referrals from the Salvation Army, North Central Human Services, the local hospitals and clinics and the Minot Police,” said Zimmer. “A lot of guys just contact me directly too, which is great.”

Every man accepted into the Minot shelter must pass a background check. Sometimes disqualifying information will be revealed that will keep a man from entering the shelter. Another precaution taken to prevent occupancy by anyone not serious about improving their life is a daily breath test.

“We don’t allow any drugs or alcohol and we breathalize the guys every night before they come in,” explained Zimmer. “They have to blow zeroes on the breathalizer before they are allowed in for the night. The guys who are serious about getting back on their feet don’t have any problem with those rules.”

The background checks and testing serve another purpose too, one that benefits the volunteers who regularly staff the shelter. They have the assurance that they are interacting with men intent on improving their lives.

Zimmer calls his volunteer help “amazing.” They offer their help in preparing meals, staying overnight and in driving the shelter’s small bus.

“We use the bus to transport guys around town,” said Zimmer. “The guys go out in the daytime and we use our bus to bring them back. They have a hot meal every night at 7 p.m.”

The shelter relies heavily upon donations from the community to provide health supplies, clothing and food for the men it serves. Although the shelter is not directly linked to any church, nearly every church in Minot offers assistance in one form or another.

“When I started this job I learned real quick how generous the Minot community is,” remarked Zimmer sincerely. “The support we get from the community is amazing.”

The men who stay at the shelter, said Zimmer, do their part too. They are responsible for keeping their rooms clean, doing their own laundry and adhering to the rules.

“They really do treat this place like a home,” said Zimmer. “They do a great job of keeping the place clean. Because it is more of a home they treat it that way and are very respectful. Very rarely do we have any trouble with any of our guys.”

The house in which the Men’s Winter Refuge is located is owned by the City of Minot. It was formerly the Domestic Violence Center, which has moved to a new location, allowing the Men’s Winter Refuge to utilize the facility for $1 per year. The shelter’s current five-year lease expires next July.

“We certainly hope the city will renew,” said Zimmer. “This is our sixth year. The first winter we were using the basement of a home that was owned by one the churches.”

Zimmer says a $90,000 start-up grant provided by the Minot Area Community Foundation was “crucial” to the beginning of the shelter. He cites the original board of the Men’s Winter Refuge and MACF for the existence of the shelter.

“From just a hope and an idea they did an incredible job,” stated Zimmer.

Some of the men in the shelter are there for only a day or two. Others three or four months, depending on their situations. Some have come from the oil fields, where they were either laid off or fired, losing both their income and housing allowance at the same time.

“A lot of guys say they’ve been sleeping in their truck for a couple weeks or at a friend’s house who says it’s time to go,” said Zimmer. “Some have been sleeping outside or wherever they can. This is not the part of the country where you want to be sleeping outside, that’s for sure.”

On average, said Zimmer, the shelter houses seven or eight men a night. There have been as many as a dozen men staying at the facility at one time. Many of them are in need of clothing and personal items. They find what they need from donations stored at the shelter.

Success stories are numerous. Of the 257 men who have stayed at the shelter the past five years, many have greatly improved their situations.

“The fact that we have dozens and dozens of success stories is really what makes this a great job for me and why I like it so much,” said Zimmer. “We had a guy who stayed here last winter, just under two months, and got a full-time job as a landscaper. He’s got his own place now and is actually one of our board members and volunteers. We have lots of stories like that. It’s a very rewarding job.”

Zimmer said he is very grateful for all the volunteer help that allows the Men’s Winter Refuge to run smoothly. A number of volunteers, he said, come from the Minot Air Force Base, whose assistance “we couldn’t do without.”

A little known service provided by the Men’s Winter Refuge is the Wednesday use of its bus, which was donated, to give people rides to the Lord’s Cupboard food pantry. Volunteer drivers stop at designated pick-up spots to provide assistance to those in need.

Anyone seeking more information on the Men’s Winter Refuge, or wishing to volunteer or donate items to the shelter, are urged to call Zimmer at 822-2585. Information can also be found at www.menswinterrefuge.com or on Facebook at menswinterrefuge.


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