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Hidden among us: Homelessness remains a steady challenge in Washington County

Cecelia Rodiles, 39, has been homeless for more than two years. After a string of bad luck and mounting bills, she found herself unable to keep up with her rent. Youssef Rddad / RiverTown Multimedia

Homelessness isn’t always visible but remains persistent in Washington County.

The latest statewide survey by the Wilder Foundation shows homeless rates fell for the first time since 2006, but some suburban counties have seen increases. In Washington County, estimated numbers of people who are homeless have remained consistent since 2015.

Earlier this year, about 25 volunteers set out on a bitter January night to count the number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night in Washington County.

The annual snapshot, referred to as the “Point in Time” count, is carried out nationally and submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Searching at gas stations, food shelves and other public places, trained volunteers and officials counted 172 people who were homeless throughout the county.

The survey has hovered close to 170 people the past three years.

But the tally has a significant margin error because it doesn’t take into account people who are couch-hopping or staying with friends or family, said Ann Lindquist, a housing specialist at the county’s redevelopment agency.

"They may not be connected with a service agency, so we don't even know they're homeless," she said. "If you're staying with friends and family, you may not even consider yourself homeless.”

Since Washington County has no shelters, Lindquist said homelessness is more hidden than in parts of Minneapolis or St. Paul.

With many people living paycheck to paycheck, she said an abrupt job loss or large financial payment like a medical bill can lead to someone becoming homeless.

Cecelia Rodiles has been homeless for more than two years.

The 39-year-old was working at a YMCA and studying criminal justice at Century College when her work hours started getting cut.

Unable to keep up with her bills, Xcel Energy shut off her electricity, and she dropped out of school. When she divorced her husband, who she said was abusive, she lost her home in St. Paul.

"It was a really hard time," Rodiles said. "My English wasn’t good. I had no money, no friends. It was very scary.”

Rodiles moved to Minnesota from Mexico in 1999. She learned English while secretly studying for the citizenship test when her husband slept at night.

When she couldn’t afford her home, Rodiles bounced around the east metro living with different people but found it difficult to find another job and navigate the social services system.

"I was so tired –– my soul, not my body," Rodiles said.

Since April, she’s been living in her van and showering at her gym in Woodbury.

Lindquist said landlords will sometimes begin the eviction process within a few days of a late payment because of a tight rental market.

According to a recent Metropolitan Council report, regional vacancy rates are among the lowest in the nation. In 2016, they dropped to an estimated 4.1 percent, down from 5.8 percent in 2010.

Having an eviction notice on a person’s record can also make finding an affordable apartment difficult. "The rental market is so tight, they don't have to take somebody with even a marginal rental history," Lindquist said.

Agencies in Washington County are able to connect people with short-term solutions, such as issuing motel vouchers, helping with short-term rental assistance and connecting them to community and nonprofit organizations.

Lindquist said there’s also a large focus on preventing homelessness because it’s less costly, both financially and emotionally.

Despite limited resources in suburbs, Lindquist sees one advantage in people’s willingness to help.

Rachel Kaiser, a personal trainer at the Woodbury Anytime Fitness, said she helped Rodiles by encouraging her to ask her boss for more work hours.

Rodiles went from working 14 hours each week to 40.

As Kaiser told others about Rodiles situation, more people offered to help by pitching in money to help Rodiles pay for personal training session. "When one person is generous, it creates a domino effect in the world," she said.

On an evening when Rodiles’ van wouldn’t start, she reluctantly asked Alex Borgen, a fellow gym member if he’d help jump her car.

After a few unsuccessful attempts, she told him not to worry about it.

The two stayed and talked throughout the night. “She looked like she needed someone to talk to," Borgen, 19, of Woodbury said.

After discovering she was homeless, he offered to help her apply for a job at Cabela's knowing the company was hiring.

He also brought her breakfast the next day.

With only about $7 to her name that week, others at the gym jumped to her aid in finding a mechanic she could work with.

Rodiles said she'll begin work at Cabela's before the beginning of August. She said she hopes to save enough money to get an apartment.

Washington County homelessness resources

• Solid Ground the Home Again program helps families secure permanent housing and provides rent assistance and case management.

• Canvas Health provides support services for youth who are homeless or at-risk of becoming homeless.

• Salvation Army provides financial assistance, such as assistance with utility payment, food, clothing, transportation and more.