As America crawls out of the Great Recession, there’s good news, bad news and worse news for the poorest among us: homeless families and individuals.
The good news is that since 2009, there has been a 1.5 percent decrease in the numbers of homeless people in the United States. The bad news is homelessness in Minnesota increased by 6 percent — and by 9 percent in Greater Minnesota. While Minnesota has fewer of its residents homeless per capita (15 per 10,000 vs. 20 nationally), the trend is not in the right direction.
The worse news is that growing numbers of homeless people are unsheltered — that is, not in shelter or transitional housing, thus living in cars, outside or in places unfit for habitation. According to the Wilder Survey, 12 percent of the homeless population in the Twin Cities is unsheltered, while in Greater Minnesota, that number is a whopping 41 percent. Being homeless anywhere is dangerous. But at least in the Twin Cities, shelter and services are more available and accessible than in rural areas, where being homeless or fleeing domestic violence can be a frightening and isolating situation, with affordable housing surprisingly scarce and transportation a chronic and debilitating barrier.
Most homeless in Greater Minnesota are local residents who want to stay in their hometowns, but with shelter lacking, they often must leave their communities in order to escape a homeless life. That can further isolate them. Some forward-thinking citizens of Pine City, Minn., realized this and recently opened a new shelter, the only one between Duluth and the Twin Cities, and now local residents have options. Many across the state have the same vision, but lack the resources to meet the need.
To be sure, shelters and transitional housing are not the long-term solution to ending someone’s homelessness, but they are an essential first step to safety, self-reliance and growth.
So what to do? Minnesota has a generous philanthropic community, but remarkably few major corporations and foundations fund in Greater Minnesota. Even fewer are willing to support crisis services. I hope funders will consider broadening their scope and include statewide programs and emergency needs. Rural residents are usually their customers, too, and rural communities are as essential to a healthy Minnesota as urban.
Government has a role, but municipalities in most small communities are strapped for funding basic services. Still, recognizing that homelessness exists in their towns and working with local providers in finding solutions is critical. Federal and state government need to review formulas to ensure that unique barriers facing rural communities and reservations are considered when funds are allocated.
The private sector can help, too. A person with a criminal record faces an extraordinarily difficult road back to a stable and productive life, and many end up homeless. Few employers, including many of the state’s largest, will hire ex-felons, and landlords often refuse to rent to those with records. While understandable on the surface, it clearly perpetuates both homelessness and criminal activity when options for survival are so limited. Partnering with local agencies that provide support services can result in productive employees and reliable renters.
Many communities with high homelessness are those where out-of-town residents own retirement homes. There are exceptions, but many service providers report little involvement of retirees as donors or volunteers in their new communities. I encourage retirees or summer residents to contact their local service agencies. Those who work and volunteer at programs in rural communities and on reservations are some of the most dedicated and resourceful members of their communities, but they need help.
Minnesota should do better. In all communities, those who are homeless or fleeing domestic violence ought to have access to safe shelter and support.
Ed Murphy is executive director of Open Your Heart to the Hungry and Homeless, a foundation providing support to hunger and homeless organizations throughout the state.