A problem once confined largely to the core cities has silently spread due to foreclosures, job loss and mental illness. Shelters are overflowing.
The waiting list at Anoka County's only homeless shelter -- a 20-bed facility -- hit an all-time high of 80 recently. That didn't include suburbanites who preferred sleeping at rest stops, couch-hopping or spending the night freezing in cars.
Homelessness is rising in Twin Cities suburbs, officials say. It's more pervasive in Anoka County than in Hennepin County, but harder to detect. Suburban panhandlers are rare. And some suburban homeless adults have steady jobs, but couldn't avoid foreclosures.
"To be homeless in the suburbs is the end of the line," said Heather Ries, director of Stepping Stone, Anoka County's homeless shelter. "It's a different culture here. The homeless in the suburbs don't scream, panhandle or knock down doors. They hide.
"We're just waking up to homelessness outside of Minneapolis and St. Paul. But it's very real. It's terrifying for those experiencing it. And it's growing."
Homelessness has quadrupled over four years in Washington County -- from 93 in 2008 to 381 in January. In Dakota County, where the homeless population exceeds 1,000 for the first time, it's grown 20 percent the past year -- from 841 in 2011 to 1,013 this year.
Unemployment, rising costs and mental illness all are factors. Stepping Stone will triple in size before year's end, becoming a 60-bed facility, Ries said. It may not be enough. Waiting lists "have become part of our lives with every wave of foreclosures," Ries said.
Anoka County found 1,463 homeless individuals on Jan. 25, when the county's Continuum of Care group, which works to end homelessness, conducted an annual count of the homeless.
The same night, agencies in other counties, including Hennepin, Dakota, Washington, Carver and Scott, did the same. Hennepin County counted 3,690 homeless people.
These counts are considered unscientific and conservative by those who conduct them, but show one other alarming trait -- an increase in the number of homeless adolescents.
In Anoka County, 150 homeless youths ages 12 to 18 were counted in January -- 40 percent more than the 108 counted last year. As the temperature plunged to 12 degrees that January night in Anoka County, 15 homeless people slept outside, said Kristina Hayes, the county's Continuum of Care coordinator. Another 25 slept in vehicles. Twelve families were living in sheds or fish houses, without heat.
In Washington County, two homeless people listed Perkins as their place of residence. In Dakota County, nine households defined as homeless consisted solely of children under 18. Only in Carver and Scott counties, which combined their homeless counts, have homeless numbers decreased since last year -- from a total of 424 in 2011 to 311 in January.
"What we once found only in the bigger cities, or just in Hennepin or Ramsey County, we're now seeing across the metro area," Hayes said.
That includes young people, said Hayes and Diane Elias, associate planner in Washington County, where she says kids double up with friends, hang out in malls after hours or live in the woods.
Because homeless teens often attend school regularly and go from couch to couch, they are "an invisible population" who rarely receive county services for which they qualify, said Jenny Lock, program manager of the suburban host home program of Avenues for Homeless Youth, a short-term housing and support service for youngsters, based in Minneapolis.
As parents struggle to make ends meet, suburban kids often receive this birthday greeting, said Karrie Schaaf, Anoka-Hennepin School District homeless youth and families liaison: "Happy 18th birthday! Now, go find a place to live."
Different for adults
It's a different suburban world for homeless adults as well.
At Stepping Stone in Anoka, many of the residents are people who "have already lived on the edge," said Ries, who has worked at the shelter seven years. Some are struggling veterans, or adults who have suffered childhood trauma. Nearly one-fifth of the homeless counted in Anoka County have a history of mental illness, Hayes said.
Joseph Paul Myers, 59, says he came to Stepping Stone this month, after his release from prison in Moose Lake, where he spent nine months for violating probation. He said he stole a car at the age of 9. He has been convicted several times on robbery and drug charges.
But until this month, he says, he'd never been homeless.
"It's kind of scary because I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow," Myers said. "It's my fault, I know that.
"I also know I'm lucky I'm not under a bridge."
Curt Franke has a very different story.
Franke, 42, says he was homeless in Dakota County from May to June last year, but it would have been hard for others to tell. He had clean clothes and worked a steady job. He never missed child support payments, his ex-wife said.
Few people knew that he spent many nights on friends' couches, others sleeping in his car, with no place of his own, Franke said.
"If you don't want your peers to know that you're homeless, you don't have to appear homeless," Franke said. "But the longer you're in that situation, the harder it is to get out of it."
In Franke's case, he had lost his job but found another, at less pay. Franke has four children and, on his new salary, could no longer pay both child support and rent. He made a choice: He would sacrifice a roof of his own to take care of his children.
"I never thought it would happen to me," said Franke, who says he has lived in an efficiency apartment since November. "Nobody in the suburbs expects it to happen to them."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419