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Homeless shelters full as winter approaches
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Transforming a former Barron County-owned nursing home into future Salvation Army transitional housing has been years in the making. As plans call for the Family House Shelter to open come spring, people in need of a roof over their heads will soon have one more place in the county to turn to.

Unfortunately, the shelter won’t be available for the upcoming winter. The sudden dips in temperatures and sporadic snow flurries have put the county’s homeless residents in cold weather mode — instead of camping out or sleeping outside, many are huddling in cars, couch surfing or calling homeless shelters.

But the shelters are filled to capacity while fielding an unprecedented number of cries for help. While the Family House won’t solve all of the county’s needs, it’s a step in the right direction and 16 people celebrated with a ground breaking on Thursday.

The foundation

In August the Salvation Army closed on property on Highway TT to the south of Highway 8 a few miles west of Barron. That accomplishment came after five years of hard work by many people, including Barron County Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Dave Armstrong with the help of Duana Bremer, Salvation Army director for St. Croix, Polk and Burnett counties.

People who had fallen on hard times and no longer had a home clearly needed an option for transitional housing in Barron County — no matter the reason.

COVID-19 proved to be both a blessing and a curse for the transitional housing project, Armstrong said. Although the pandemic sent shockwaves through society, the federal government started to provide Community Development Building Grants for recovery.

On behalf of the Salvation Army, Barron County applied for and received $550,000 in CDBG funds. Combined with $350,000 from an emergency shelter fund and $200,000 from the late Foster Friess, Bremer had the money to buy the building, fund renovations and cover operations for a little while.

The Salvation Army wants to renovate the building to provide transitional housing for about 14 people, from male and female individuals to families who can’t find a home. Tenants would pay rent, probably around 30% of income, and they could come from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances.

The Salvation Army Service Center will also provide case management and housing navigation, plus the organization will open the facility to the homeless who don’t want to spend the night but seek a shower, laundry and a hot meal.

Building blocks

But the Family House Shelter will be just a drop in the bucket when it comes to filling the overwhelming need for homeless shelters and transitional housing in Barron County.

Benjamin’s House, a homeless shelter in Rice Lake, does a great job, Armstrong said.

But when residents leave, they face discrimination from landlords who don’t want to rent to them, said Barron County Board of Supervisors Chairman Louie Okey, noting transitional housing can help residents through programs, case workers and education with the ultimate goal of getting them back in the workforce.

Armstrong lauded the Barron County Department of Health and Human Services and Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald for their emphasis on drug abuse prevention. But once people have entered the system, they need help and support, and the Family House can provide it.

“The idea that somebody that’s on meth, etc., just stops meth and goes back to work is nonsensical — it doesn’t happen,” he said. “They need help from the sobriety and recovery aspect. This is one piece that can help.”

Armstrong, who said he’s in his 34th year of sobriety from alcohol and drugs, knows whereof he speaks when it comes to the relationship between drug use and homelessness.

“I’ve been there and done this when I was younger,” he said. “I understand this from a long time ago.”

Breaking ground

About 16 people with stakes in the success of the transitional housing venture congregated at the site Thursday morning for coffee, sweets, a tour and a ceremonial groundbreaking. Since the Salvation Army bought the buildings, it has made strides cleaning it up but clearly had a long way ago — hence the estimate that it wouldn’t be ready to accept residents until spring.

Unfortunately the need heading into December for homeless services is critical. Bremer said one morning she received phone calls that two men from different homeless shelters in the region were being “exited” due to drug use. She tried to get them into the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center, but the free center was uncharacteristically booked full.

“They have never been full in the last 10 years that I’ve worked with them,” she said.

Benjamin’s House and all Salvation Army shelters also are filled to capacity at the moment, Bremer said. The Salvation Army in Polk County is taking an average of 10 calls for services a week and on the morning before the ground breaking, Bremer received four calls herself — all before 8:30 a.m.

Lori Zahrbock, executive director of Benjamin’s House, confirmed the shelter was full and they have received an average of nine calls a week in November, mostly because people are not able to find housing or due to family disagreements.

“In my six years here I have never seen this many calls at any time of the year, and this has been going on since September,” Zahrbock said. “I would attribute it to lack of affordable housing in our area and also fallout from the pandemic as stress and family issues have become greater with more people staying home.”

Still, there’s no reason to stop calling for help. The Salvation Army has entered agreements with local motels to rent rooms, and continues to provide gas cards and help for rent and utilities. The hotline to call for assistance is 715-554-4928 between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.


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Rice Lake in for a 10-day holiday celebration

The 12 days of Christmas have nothing on Merry on Main, a 10-day Christmas-bedazzled celebration of Rice Lake’s vibrant downtown culminating in the Holiday Parade on Thursday, Dec. 2, and Light Up Rice Lake on Saturday, Dec. 4.

Rice Lake Main Street Association’s Merry on Main kicks off on Plaid Friday, the small retailers’ answer to Black Friday on the day after Thanksgiving. Instead of shopping big, stop into a downtown boutique or store for holiday gifts and support hometown business owners.

“It’s an opportunity to check out the small businesses first before you go to the big box stores,” said DeAnna Westphal, executive director of Rice Lake Main Street Association.

The 10-day event continues with Small Business Saturday, when people can shop small and shop local. Free gift wrapping is available at Venture’s Apparel on Main Street from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday features the Social Media Giveaway; share a recipe on Facebook for a chance to win a basket from Rice Lake Main Street Association.

That pesky and mischievous Elf on the Shelf will pop up here, there and anywhere it feels like downtown on Monday. Write down the elves’ locations and drop it off at the association’s dropbox with your name and phone number. Winners will be announced at Light Up Rice Lake.

Don an ugly sweater on Tuesday and head for a shopping excursion with friends for discounts and deals; participants are eligible for prizes at participating locations.

Wishlist Wednesday is a time for people to stop at participating stores to fill out Christmas wish lists for friends and family to quickly find the perfect holiday present. Participants are put in a drawing for a free gift announced at Light Up Rice Lake.

Thursday, downtown holiday merriment really swings into high gear with the City Hall Christmas Tree Display, Santa letter drop offs from 4-6 p.m., and the Merry on Main Holiday Parade, themed “Favorite Things,” at 6 p.m. Please don’t bring Santa as he is booked to kick off the Light Up Rice Lake weekend. Lineup begins at 5 p.m. and units should check in at Knapp Stout parking lot next to the Rice Lake Chamber of Commerce.

On Friday, Dec. 3, Northern Star Theater is hosting a family fun night featuring pizza with the Jolly Old Elf himself, Bingo and a classic Christmas movie. Wildflower is the sponsor, and The Milk Pail will provide root beer floats.

Merry on Main concludes with Light Up Rice Lake, a full day of holiday fun. It starts with kids Christmas shopping from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Moose Lodge, along with a cocoa and cookie crawl — tins can be purchase from Rice Lake Main Street Association — at the same time downtown.

The Christmas market between Airtec Sports and the Great Lakes Forestry Museum & Lumbering Hall of Fame Park opens from 3-6 p.m., featuring craft and a few Shoreline Market vendors, including a few from Duluth and Spooner.

Christmas carols will fill the air beginning at 4:30 p.m. at the Knapp Stout Park parking lot and the community tree and park lighting ceremony begins at 4:45 p.m.

Lights will bedeck the skating rink, park, footbridge and Hall of Fame Park. Everything will be lighted in white, except for the 22-foot Christmas tree, which will be showcased in multi-colored glory.

For more information visit ricelakemainstreet.co.


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Felony charge filed after car crashes into Cumberland City Hall
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CUMBERLAND — A 38-year-old man was charged with felony criminal damage to property and driving while intoxicated after he deliberately crashed a vehicle into Cumberland City Hall because he was upset a family member was issued a citation, according to police.

Nicholas F. Brannan, of Cumberland, made his initial appearance Wednesday before Judge Maureen Boyle, and was ordered not to make contact with the Cumberland Police Department or City Hall unless approved by a city representative in writing, or have contact with Officer John Smith.

According to court records:

Cumberland Police Officer Matt Frey was on duty in the Police Department office within City Hall on Tuesday when at approximately 2:50 a.m. he heard what sounded like an engine revving up and tires squealing outside. Then he heard a loud crash.

Frey checked the Police Department’s video surveillance and saw that a vehicle had smashed its front end through City Hall’s front doors. The entry to the Police Department lobby is through those doors.

Frey had been seated 20 feet from the doors, and the complaint noted that the lobby is open 24/7 and it is common for cleaning personnel or people seeking assistance to be present outside of business hours.

When he went to the front doors, Frey saw Brannan sitting on the driver’s side back tire with his hands behind his head. The defendant said he was upset his son had been charged with some narcotics violations by a Cumberland police officer.

Brannan said he intentionally ran into the building to make a statement. He wanted to talk to somebody about the charge and felt ramming a car into City Hall was the best way to get ahold of someone.

Brannan said he’d been drinking — he estimated about 10 beers that night — and may have been injured. A preliminary breath test showed his blood-alcohol level was 0.163%, and the limit for legal driving is 0.08 percent.

Brannan was transported to Cumberland Hospital and then taken to the Barron County Jail after medical clearance.

Cumberland Police Chief Heather Wolfe reported she saw extensive damage to the front doors, including shattered glass, and damaged metal framing and flooring. Structural damage also was possible.

The video showed Brannon was wearing a seat belt, and the airbags of the Ford Focus deployed when the vehicle crashed. He remained seated for about 30 seconds after the collision before sitting down on the rear wheel.

Wolfe said she received estimates that damages to the building likely will exceed $10,000.

If convicted of felony criminal damage to property in value of more than $2,500, Brannan faces a fine of up to $10,000, up to 3 1/2 years in prison, or both.

Brannan next appears in court for an adjourned initial appearance on Dec. 1. He signed a $10,000 signature bond, and his address has been changed from Cumberland to Amery.


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