(Fargo, ND) -- WDAY Radio spoke with multiple officials who operate and maintain Fargo's Downtown Engagement Center (D.E.C).
The Downtown Engagement Center's Purpose
The Downtown Engagement Center was established with federal Covid-19 funding inside the former Fargo Police Department Headquarters during the pandemic. The goal of the engagement center at the time was to provide a quarantine zone for homeless residents who tested positive for the virus, but to also provide services for "outreach, alternative transportation, and assistance to individuals experiencing crisis involving substance use," according to a press release sent out by Fargo Cass Public Health at the time operations became online.
"We're kinda the silver lining of some things related to Covid." said Jan Eliassen, the Director of the Downtown Engagement Center, "People didn't really have any place to be during the day. A lot of services; especially shelters, people lean on shelters to somehow solve everything and they can't. Shelters are a moment of engagement to provide immediate safety and immediate needs, and then we really have to count on the rest of the system to be comprehensive in what it's offering."
Eliassen says the D.E.C established a coordinated effort to assist the homeless population in Downtown Fargo. The director says D.E.C staff spoke with local business leaders and downtown residents, and she says the center worked to provide services the community requested. According to Eliassen, members of the community wanted a place for homeless residents to spend time and have a place to be, especially during the winter months.
"Without us, we have no solutions in our downtown community or throughout the community," said Eliassen, "Without us, we have fragmented efforts to try to make a difference. With us, we at least have a chance to make a difference."
Officials within the D.E.C saw 350 unique individuals over 1,623 total visits in the month of September.
Programs and Services
The Downtown Engagement Center offers multiple different services to those who want them.
The D.E.C allows any resident to use their non-emergency medical clinic, but also distributes life saving drugs to those experiencing opioid overdoses. Data from Fargo Cass Public Health shows 198 doses of Narcan and 182 doses of Naloxone were given in September of 2022. This is on top of serving 73 unique individuals over 143 different admissions within the Withdrawal Management Unit within the same time frame.
The D.E.C also has laundry services, showers, and personal lockers open for anyone to use. The Director of the D.E.C says the reason for these services is to provide a bit of hope and humanity to a community that is often disparaged against.
"We knew we needed lockers, we knew we needed a place for people to shower and clean up [and] just get out of the weather, we needed to be able to offer laundry services," said Eliassen, "The things that people could use just so they could feel human. Everybody wants to present a certain way, and when you look homeless, you're treated like you're homeless."
Another program that is utilized within the Downtown Engagement Center is devoted to housing the homeless. Officials say the program leads to multiple community benefits, not only for the newly housed, but for the Fargo taxpayer as well.
One of the benefits members of the engagement center tout is community cost savings. One official says the housing program within the center reduces costs on local taxpayers because residents that are housed are less likely to be sent to an emergency room, use drug withdrawal services, and are much less likely to accrue costs associated with using the D.E.C and the Cass County Jail.
"Just in 2021 alone we saved the city over $500,000 dollars in those decreased services," said Kelsey Iverson, the Housing Navigator for Partners in Housing, a group who works with the D.E.C.
Iverson says the decrease in services due to housing homeless residents is also associated with a decrease in multiple other emergencies. She says events like the need for drug detoxes (93.5%), ambulance usage (73%), emergency room usage (68%), jail visits (89%), and the need for emergency shelter (99.6%) decreased significantly or almost entirely once homeless residents did have permanent shelter. The largest cost savings come due to reducing emergency room usage, which saved Fargo taxpayers in 2021 over $222,190 alone.
Officials within the D.E.C say 39 unique individuals received housing support services over 100 different visits in September alone.
Accusations of Enabling
In a recent discussion between Fargo city leadership, Commissioner David Peipkorn accused the Downtown Engagement Center of "enabling" homeless residents. The commissioner cited examples, including "two very intoxicated Native Americans sleeping" outside of a building owned by Peipkorn. The Commissioner says he called 9-1-1, waited for the people to leave the scene, then followed them to see where they would go.
"They went to the Engagement Center. It’s enabling. That Engagement Center has got to go, "said Peipkorn.
Officials in the Downtown Engagement Center directly addressed the comments made by Commissioner Peipkorn, "We've got city leaders and community members... just so disparaging of the work that we do," said Kim Seeb, the Healthcare for Homeless Coordinator in the D.E.C, "I would really like media and the city leaders to understand what that does to someone like myself, who comes here every day, has the time of my life when I'm here, and then to have them just discount that like we're doing something wrong or we're causing harm or causing problems. That's not what we are here for."
Eliassen says, in general, city leaders within Fargo do come to them if there are questions, concerns or to help where they can. The D.E.C Director believes most of Fargo's leadership think the building and its staff are accountable, have the ability to tackle the problem, and will continue to work until the problem is solved. She believes criticisms of the engagement center "are few and far between", but does have a message for those who think the center is to blame for issues in downtown Fargo.
"[People] gotta have somebody to blame when things aren't going well in our community right? You can blame us, I'm tough enough, I can handle it, "said Eliassen, "You can blame some of the folks you see out there that are homeless, and [believe they're] this boil on humanity. But really, they are other humans, and until you're ready to look inward and think 'what do I really think about this situation and how much am I willing to know', you know - we can only get so far in the conversation."
The Downtown Engagement Center is located at 222 4th Street in Downtown Fargo. You can learn more about Fargo's Downtown Engagement Center by clicking here.