By Andy Greder
PINE CITY, Minn (Reuters) - When a man spends winter hibernating in an icehouse on a lake or sleeping on the floor at a friend's house, it's tough to count him as "homeless."
Such were the difficulties social service groups in a 14-county area of central Minnesota found when they set out to gauge rural homelessness each January for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Because of that, the Central Minnesota Housing Partnership volunteered to collect a point-in-time snapshot six months later. It found a much starker picture.
The partnership found 301 homeless people in July, up 50 percent from the 197 reported in January in Minnesota counties stretching from St. Cloud east to the Wisconsin border.
Nationally, HUD's point-in-time count of homelessness in the United States taken each January has stayed "pretty steady through the recession and economic downturn," HUD spokeswoman Ashley Gammon said.
HUD counted 650,000 people homeless in its 2010 survey, the latest available figures, up from 643,000 in 2009.
The stability could be credited to $1.5 billion in stimulus spending for homeless prevention and rehousing and a record $1.6 billion allocated to homeless service providers in 2011 that allowed the agency to help 1 million people, Gammon said.
The housing partnership has told HUD that, in its view, performing a survey of homelessness during sub-zero conditions would lead to misleading gross underestimates, said Hanna Klimmek, who coordinated the summer sampling. She plans to include her rationale in an upcoming funding request to HUD.
"You are never going to get an accurate or true number of unsheltered homeless folks out there with weather like that," Klimmek said. "They are going to do everything in their power to stay with family and friends."
Mark Johnston, who leads HUD's homeless programs in Washington, D.C., said the agency consulted experts and research before selecting January as the month for its annual count starting in 1995.
"We've gotten very few complaints," Johnston said. "It's much easier to enumerate them in a shelter, than in the summer, when we would have to go to the woods to find people."
SHELTER WOULD FILL UP QUICKLY
Along the Wisconsin border about mid-way between the Twin Cities and Duluth, Minnesota's Pine County tallied 98 homeless people with 38 unsheltered in July.
"It's too great a number," Pine City planner Nathan Johnson said of the July count. "There are people in our community that need some temporary assistance and need to try to gain some skills to get back to being self-sufficient."
Johnson has brought nine homeless people into his home over two years in Pine City, a small town of about 3,000 people.
A city counselor, ministers and some Pine City residents plan to open a shelter with room for 16 homeless people in January. It would be the first shelter on the 150-mile Interstate 35 corridor between the Twin Cities and Duluth.
"There is a definite need in that area, and they will fill it up immediately," Klimmek said.
Some residents and county officials have resisted the shelter, saying people could be dropped off unsolicited by out-of-county authorities, churches or social service groups.
Mary Kay Sloan, a city counselor and co-chair of the shelter, said organizers would require people to call ahead of time, allowing them to conduct background checks.
Michael Kubesh, a dairy farmer from Hinckley, Minnesota, which is about 13 miles north of Pine City, supports a homeless shelter for women and children, but not for men.
"The adult male is usually the cause of the homelessness in the family unit," Kubesh said. "If they want to bring him in, they are giving him a pass."
At community meetings, other area residents have said the proposed shelter would be too close to a city park where children play and should be located elsewhere.
Still other residents have said that if people such as Johnson now bring homeless people into their homes, they should continue to do so, negating the need for a shelter.
However, Johnson said the situation was unsustainable and the need for a shelter in the community was clear.
Last summer, Pine City native Danny Wright was relying on Union Gospel Mission in St. Paul, Minnesota, when he was hit by a vehicle and killed.
"If there was a homeless shelter up here, he could have stayed and had all of his connections up here and maybe found a job," Johnson said.
(Reporting by Andy Greder; Editing by David Bailey and Jerry Norton)