Our Neighbors’ Place volunteer maintenance crew installed a new sign at the organization’s Day Center at 122 W. Johnson St., River Falls, in September. Photo courtesy of Our Neighbors’ Place
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Our Neighbors’ Place invited to update RF City Council

RIVER FALLS – Our Neighbors’ Place Director Shelly Smith gave River Falls City Council members an update on the organization’s activities related to helping the homeless at the Nov. 22 city council meeting.

ONP, located at 122 W. Johnson St., is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday with the mission of “connecting our neighbors with support, shelter and housing services to foster self-determination.”

A group of community members founded the nonprofit in 2009.

“We serve all of Pierce and St. Croix counties, but if anyone comes in from outside those counties, we’ll serve to the best of our abilities,” Smith said. “There is no cost for services.

The Day Center offers a place to do laundry, shower/restroom, lockers, kitchen facility, work/rest area, mailing address, phone/ fax/wifi/computer, free children’s books, food (Panera Bread, St. Croix Valley Food Bank, community donations), gas cards and taxi vouchers.

“A lot of these things are really important for folks who are either in between places, sleeping in their vehicles, outside, couch hopping, whatever,” Smith said. “We offer a safe, welcoming, non-judgmental space for people to come in and get these things and that makes a big difference.

“When you’re struggling with something, you don’t need to be told what to do, you don’t need any judgment, you don’t need anything, you just need options and resources.”

Resources and referrals provided include a welcoming staff and volunteers, referrals to other local service providers, comprehensive housing counseling, an on-site professional case manager, and a portal for regional housing programs, Smith said.

“Instead of handing people a list of numbers and saying good luck, we really sit down and try to figure out what they need, where they live, what their resources are, to be able to match them best with the organization that will be able to give them the most help,” she said. “There’s nothing worse than calling a number, telling your story, then you’re denied, time and time again.”

The ONP Clothing Closet, located at the Day Center, features free and low-cost adult clothes, shoes, accessories, or outerwear. Vouchers to shop for free are given to anyone who requests one – no income verification is needed. Other items are given to guests as needed – diapers, wipes, personal care products, cleaning products, blankets, towels, and more. The Clothing Closet is open to the public, with prices ranging from $1 to $8; all proceeds go to ONP programming.

Smith detailed the numbers of points of contact (in-person visits or phone calls) to the Day Center from 2015 to 2021.

• 2015 – 1,043

• 2016 – 1,648 (58% increase)

• 2017 – 3,171 (92% increase)

• 2018 – 4,123 (30% increase)

• 2019 – 4,870 (18% increase)

• 2020 – 3,039 (decrease due to COVID closure) • 2021 – 4,085 (34% increase over 2020, but decrease from 2019) The average number of points of contact is 86 per month, Smith said.

“I think a lot of that has to do with not our gigantic advertising budget, because we don’t have one, but I think it has more to do with the fact that when people go somewhere and they need something and they get the help that they need, they go and tell others,” Smith said. “I think it also speaks to the fact that we have a lot of good collaborations and partnerships with local organizations, the schools, the hospital, the jails.”

ONP also partners with the River Falls School District for the backpack program. Backpacks are filled with seven to nine pounds of nonperishable food and a voucher for perishable food (milk, meat, produce, bread, eggs) and sent home each week during the school year. The program is open to any River Falls School District family who needs help feeding their family when school is not in session. A total of 26 volunteers run the program, including Greenwood Elementary third graders and RFHS special needs class members who pack backpacks weekly. Bags can be picked up at the day center or sent home with students.

During the 2020-21 school year, 2,261 were sent home with children, which included 16,544 pounds of food, Smith said. In the past, between 70 and 90 kids per week would take home backpacks; this year it’s 120.

ONP also offers help by providing transitional housing to families experiencing homelessness. Its apartment building contains two two-bedroom and two three-bedroom units in a quiet residential neighborhood near downtown. Families pay 30% of their income toward rent. The program provides safe, stable housing and case management, Smith said. A case manager works with families on their goals – the primary focus is on securing permanent housing with the average stay length being one year. Families can stay for up to two years if necessary.

Smith called it “life-changing” for families. It frees them up to work on other goals of their choosing.

“Nobody is living in our building forever. We want to help as many families as we can,” she said.

Since 2016, 17 families have exited the program into permanent, stable housing. Three families did not complete the program, three are in the early stages, and ONP is getting ready to welcome its 24th family.

Smith closed by inviting the public to a poverty simulation from 1-4 p.m. Jan. 18 at UW-River Falls. The interactive activity and discussion is meant to help people understand the challenges faced by one in three households in the region, “It’s an opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes and learn about some of the obstacles, some of the barriers, and also how to help,” Smith said.

Casino Night is back this year from 6-9 p.m. Feb. 4 at Kilkarney Hills; the fundraiser features casino-style gaming, food, drinks, music, silent auction, 50/50 raffle and more.

Other business

The city council approved the following: An ordinance related to noise control and exceptions. The ordinance states: “Blowers, Fans and Engines. The operation of any noise creating blower or power fan or any internal combustion engine at any time or place so as to annoy or disturb the quiet, comfort or repose of persons in any office or in any dwelling, hotel, motel or other place of residence or any persons in the vicinity, particularly when such operation occurs between the hours of 10 p.m. through 6 a.m.”

An ordinance amending the official parking control map to include no parking zones on Meadows Drive and West Cascade Avenue.

Resolutions approving the weights and measures schedule, accepting public improvement for Dawes Place Phase 1, the Planned Unit Development General Development Plan for an 86-unit two-family development for Derrick Homes, the PUD specific implantation plan for a 106-unit multi-family building (The Uplands) on Paulson Road, a development agreement between the city and FAO River Falls, LLC for The Uplands.

December 6, 2022