The phrase "fastest growing homeless population in Minnesota" likely conjures a stereotypical image of unkempt middle-aged men battling the demons of addiction and/or mental illness. In reality, it described teen-agers and 20-year-olds in the 2010 Wilder Research tally of Minnesota homelessness. Their numbers took a 46 percent jump between 2006 and 2009, and stand at an estimated 2,500 per night today.

While many factors contribute to youth homelessness, two stand out, said Jodi Harpstead, CEO of Lutheran Social Services. About three out of five homeless youth were the children of foster care who "aged out" when they turned 18. The next biggest group are LGBT kids whose sexual orientation cost them their welcome in their home of origin.

"They’re not runaways," said Harpstead, whose organization is a leader among 22 nonprofits working to win additional state dollars to help homeless youth. "If they have a home to go to, we send them home."

Rather, homeless youth are kids whose families broke down or let them down – and whose state has been letting them down too. A state agency study in 2007 said the housing and services to give homeless youth a bridge to self-sufficiency require $8 million per biennium from state taxpayers. That year’s Legislature responded with $1 million. The 2009 and 2011 Legislatures came through with a mere $238,000 for two years.

This year’s Legislature has done better. The Senate has $4 million to remedy youth homelessness in its omnibus human services bill. The House’s bid is $3 million, though the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Laurie Halverson of Eagan, says she’s still angling for more. 

Harpstead said the coalition is grateful for the increase. But the head of the state’s largest non-profit social service agency has been at the Capitol repeatedly this year to say that anything short of $8 million for the Youth Homeless Act will leave hundreds of young people "couch surfing" or sleeping in cars, abandoned buildings, parks and public buildings. A state whose best economic asset is its human capital can’t afford to put that much of it at risk.