The largest homeless shelter in downtown Minneapolis is the Salvation Army's Harbor Lights at 1010 Currie Av. N. It's designed to provide a warm place to sleep for 350 adults. One very cold night last week, it accommodated 550 people in almost impossibly crowded conditions.
Women slept in a hallway in which lights had to be on all night to comply with fire safety regulations. "We couldn't even offer them darkness," lamented Monica Nilsson, director of community services for St. Stephen's Human Services, which provides shelter and services for the homeless.
That same night, Jan. 7-8, YouthLink's nearby temporary emergency shelter for homeless youths was filled to its meager capacity, 25 beds. It ceased operation the next night, even though the temperature at 1 a.m. on Jan. 9 was 9 below zero.
Minnesotans can add those numbers and the misery they represent to the accumulating evidence that homelessness is a growing problem in this state, one that deserves priority attention by the 2014 Legislature. The recent easing of the financial squeeze that gripped state government for 10 years, and the prospect of a large bonding bill this session, afford an opportunity for lawmakers to finally do something about a long-festering problem.
Stories related to an inadequate supply of affordable, stable housing for people with low incomes and/or mental or physical disabilities have appeared frequently on this newspaper's pages in recent weeks. For example:
• About one in four inmates at the Hennepin County jail on any given night are people with severe psychiatric disorders, the Star Tribune's Paul McEnroe and Glenn Howatt reported in September. The inmates remain there, on average, for three months before getting proper psychiatric care.
Many of those inmates were homeless at the time of their arrest, or will be upon release, cast into situations that exacerbate mental illnesses rather than aid recovery, noted Sue Abderholden of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
• Detox services for chronically chemically dependent Minnesotans are in short supply, "leaving wide swaths of the state with limited or no treatment options for people suffering from potentially life-threatening symptoms," reporter Chris Serres told readers last month. Chronic inebriates are often "caught in a revolving door between the street and the ER," his story noted.
One obvious remedy: Get them off the street and into homes.
• University of Wisconsin research has found that community vitality, including housing, is more important than the availability of medical services as a predictor of individual health and longevity, Health Partners CEO Mary Brainerd told a Habitat for Humanity audience in November. It follows that affordable housing deserves to be part of a health care cost-containment strategy.
The same goes for Minnesota's effort to bring the academic achievement of poor and nonwhite children more nearly in line with that of middle-class, majority-race students. Homelessness is a major impediment to learning (see accompanying excerpt).
Connect these dots, and a hopeful possibility emerges. Focus on "housing first," as advocates for the homeless have long preached, and other demands on public and private resources are more likely to ease over time. Education, health, public safety, corrections and human services cost growth might shrink.
But that won't happen without state action to increase the supply of affordable housing and, particularly, supportive housing — facilities that offer help for residents managing chemical dependency, mental illness, physical disability or other impediments to self-sufficiency.
Advocates for the homeless say expecting the market or charities to meet that need without taxpayer input is unrealistic. If it were otherwise, they say, the number of homeless Minnesotans would have dropped as the recession eased. Instead, it increased 6 percent between 2009 and 2012, the latest Wilder Research count showed, with homelessness among children, youths and families on the increase.
That's despite vigorous effort by existing services for homeless Minnesotans. "We've found housing for 2,000 people in Hennepin County in the last few years. But we cannot move people out of homelessness as fast as they are coming," Nilsson said last week. "It's always encouraging to me when I walk into a homeless shelter and I don't know anyone. It means we're moving people into homes. But it's discouraging when I walk into a shelter, I don't know anyone and it's overflowing." She's felt that discouragement often lately, she added.
The Legislature can turn that trend line in a more positive direction this year. Homes for All, an advocacy coalition, proposes the biggest boost for low-income and supportive housing in a generation — $100 million in bonding. The Minnesota Housing Finance Agency has asked Gov. Mark Dayton to endorse that amount when he unveils his bonding proposal this week.
About a fifth of those funds would be used to rehabilitate the state's existing subsidized housing stock. The bulk of the remainder would leverage other public, private and philanthropic resources to build more supportive housing — the kind best able to keep vulnerable people out of jails, detox centers, emergency rooms and homeless shelters. If the leverage works as advocates hope, 5,000 units of supportive housing could be built. (By comparison, the Wilder count says, more than 10,000 Minnesotans were homeless on a typical night in 2012.)
That's not all the Legislature can do. An increase in the minimum wage would keep housing affordable for more people. So would a more generous Working Family Tax Credit for low-income workers. Allowing welfare recipients easier access to more education, as Homes for All also suggests, would help.
But lawmakers will do well to heed the wisdom of the motto "housing first." Just as homelessness is the source of many ills, its end can bring far-reaching gains.