Fargo's Downtown Engagement Center leadership address 2024 budget concerns, moving locations, and heightened program utilization

Photo by: WDAY Radio Staff
Photo by: WDAY Radio Staff

(Fargo, ND) -- Fargo's Downtown Engagement Center is aiming to address several questions and concerns regarding budget cuts coming their way, their assertion action needs to happen to address the homeless concerns in the city, and potential plans to change locations in the future. 

Fargo's 2024 Budget

Recently, The City of Fargo released their plan for the 2024 budget. The goal is to raise revenues by 7% by increasing utility franchise fees from 2 to 4%, and to raise the mill levy by two. The budget also cuts the budgets of several items, with Fargo Cass Public Health's (FCPH) Harm Reduction division being no exception, seeing an approximate $1.4 million dollar cut. The cuts, according to the local leaders, will impact the amount of funds entering the pool of money FCPH has for all Harm Reduction programs, and will cause pauses to services until the funding is secured again.

"It's been a big thing to grapple with, we aren't losing funding, but we are not able to find funding to fully operate..." said Jan Eliassen, Director of the Harm Reduction Division... "I'd say that's the impact of less funding in all programs. We are still going to show up, we're still going to do the best we can. People are going to be served in a way that they might not be served anywhere else."

"When these pots of money dry up, and we don't have a sustainable funding mechanism, the need doesn't go away," said Chandler Esslinger, the Community Liaison with Harm Reduction Division, "When we talk about the engagement center, compared to August of 2022, we've seen a 205% increase in utilization of services at the (Downtown Engagement Center) in that last year timeframe."

Eliassen says if they could respond to the needs of homeless residents the way they want to, the Downtown Engagement Center would like additional resources to utilize additional hours and staff to address the dramatic increase in service use. In August of 2023, 3,441 people visited the engagement center, with an average of 111 people seeking services every day. With the current budget proposed for 2024, Eliassen says there will be cuts to some programs, including services at the engagement center, to make up for the shortfall.

"We need to act now"

Eliassen says the way the current model is set up is unsustainable for several harm reduction programs, unless additional help is given to those services. She says this is due to Fargo being the only city financially contributing to the Downtown Engagement Center, yet helping any F-M metro resident who requests services. Eliassen says there is no structure in place at this time to officially gather funds from nearby cities, but she hopes conversations will be planned in the future with leaders from West Fargo, Moorhead, and others to contribute to the service the engagement center provides.

"I think that it's time to have those conversations, and I think those communities; I think everybody understands these are the programs we want to make sure exist in our community...  It is a community wide issue. This doesn't just fall on city leadership and agencies like ours. It falls on the entire community to resolve those issues."

Esslinger says there needs to be some sort of action in order to avoid an even larger homelessness crisis from occurring in Fargo. She says there is still time to meaningfully create change and place people who want living spaces into affordable housing, but says the time to make that change is fleeting.

"At some point this issue will be too big for us just to undo all the harm, and right now we are still in the window of time where we can make actionable change people can see and feel rather quickly..." said Esslinger..."If we don't figure out what's happening in the next 10 years with housing, we are going to be having a lot different conversation if nothing changes between now and then."

"I would ask the community that question," said Eliassen," Seeing what they are seeing now that they haven't seen before, at least not to this degree in our community. How long do we have?"

Changing Locations

The current location the Downtown Engagement Center uses is the former home of the Fargo Police Department Headquarters. FCPH's Harm Reduction division converted the space into an area dedicated to providing several services to homeless residents. However, even in conversations WDAY Radio has had with the Eliassen in 2022, they acknowledged the Downtown Engagement Center was in an imperfect home, and they needed to find a more well-suited location at some point. Now, Eliassen is confirming some of those conversations are taking place. 

"That's in its infancy, and we just barely started talking about it," said Eliassen, "I have no idea where we are going to end up... I personally wouldn't sign on to a plan that moves us out of the community that needs us most, or out of the area that needs us most."

Speaking on similar homeless engagement programs across the nations, Esslinger says the ones that have failed in the past are ones that were set up in places that did not meet the needs of the unhoused in their communities. She says this is because the people will come to get services, but making it too burdensome will place too many barriers to getting help.

"As much as we may like to think that moving us outside of downtown would resolve a lot of the issues, what it actually means is that a lot of the issues would be even more visible because we wouldn't be here absorbing a lot of the needs of that specific group of people," said Esslinger.


You can learn more about the Downtown Engagement Center by clicking here

Original Air Date: 
Friday, September 15, 2023