Every night in Minnesota, thousands of people are homeless. Most of them are children.
We should not forget that we did not have widespread homelessness until the early 1980s, when federal housing and economic assistance programs were dismantled. By 1983, the federal budget for affordable housing was 77 percent less than in 1978. Mass homelessness that followed was a direct consequence of those policy decisions.
Today, the typical face of homelessness is a child’s: a girl living with her family in a car behind a suburban shopping mall, a third-grader falling asleep on her desk because she did not sleep well in a shelter, a young gay man rejected by his family, a young woman on the street who is no longer eligible for foster care and has nowhere else to go. The developmental and social impacts of homelessness on children, families and communities are profound and long-lasting.
Housing stability is a necessary condition — a platform — for nearly every goal we have for our state: building a stronger workforce, closing disparities, improving health, reducing unnecessary crises and their associated costs, and protecting the dignity and choice of people living with disabilities. Housing stability, we have learned, is a wise public investment.
In recent memory, housing stability has been, and it should continue to be, a goal with strong bipartisan support. The Pawlenty administration and the Bush administration invested in housing and services for people who had been homeless the longest and who had disabilities. In Minnesota, these investments created 4,000 new supportive housing opportunities and helped cut chronic homelessness in half.
In 2014, with the support of Gov. Mark Dayton, the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness launched Heading Home: Minnesota’s Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness. With the targeted investments made in the plan’s strategies, today we have fewer people experiencing homelessness than we did three years ago, including a 20 percent reduction among families with children and the near elimination of veteran homelessness. Our progress on veteran homelessness came because leaders in Washington and St. Paul invested resources to ensure that veterans have housing they can afford and the support they need to keep it. This same resolve and bipartisan commitment can and must be made for children, families and youth.
Several of Dayton’s budget priorities this year build on previous results. The governor proposed $8 million in rental assistance for families with school-age children at risk of being homeless. It continues and expands a successful pilot program that has shown housing stability can have a positive impact on school attendance and success. Because of this progress, partners from several philanthropic organizations have stepped up to work with the state on this effort. However, the Legislature’s housing budget bill vetoed by the governor this week did not include funds to continue this important program.
In his bonding proposal, the governor proposed $70 million in housing infrastructure bonds for the preservation and development of affordable and supportive housing. As rents rise and vacancy rates stay exceedingly tight, affordable housing development is critical for the increasing number of Minnesotans who need it. The House and Senate bonding bills include only $35 million for this important need.
Homelessness is not just an urban issue. Nearly 40 percent of all people experiencing homelessness live in towns and cities in Greater Minnesota. Homelessness touches miners losing jobs in St. Louis County, youth being sex-trafficked along the I-94 corridor in St. Cloud, workers in the meatpacking industry in southeastern and southwestern Minnesota, and schoolchildren in 77 of our 87 counties. Housing instability affects the vitality of every region of our state.
With housing so out of reach for so many Minnesotans, the urgency to increase housing options that are affordable is clearer than ever. While negotiations between the governor and legislators are underway, I remind all of us that the cost of inaction is high. If we do not invest in housing stability for Minnesotans now, we will pay the price for years to come.
Cathy ten Broeke is state director to Prevent and End Homelessness with the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness.