Tackling the new front in homelessness: families

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 30, 2013 - 7:12 AM

An 11-agency collaboration tackles a growing problem.

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Rachel Bean, an outreach worker with St. Stephen’s Human Services, spoke recently with a homeless woman at the library.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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In a season that craves good news, here’s some: Minnesota is close to ending homelessness among veterans and other adults who have been without permanent shelter for many years — the so-called “chronic homeless.”

Putting a dependable roof over the heads of those vulnerable people was the seemingly audacious goal that Tim Pawlenty, then governor, set in January 2004. He said it would take a decade to meet the goal as he proposed state funding for 4,000 more units of a kind of housing then relatively new — supportive housing. It’s the creative combination of affordable apartments with services to help residents manage disorders such as chemical dependency, mental illness and physical disability.

Despite a mean recession and variable political winds in the intervening years, a task force of state, local and philanthropic officials who have been leading the fight to end chronic homelessness reported this month that they are only slightly behind Pawlenty’s timetable. They announced that the number of homeless veterans on any given night in 2013 has fallen below 350 and is on track to reach “functional zero” in 2015 — that is, less than 1 percent of all people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota, or no more than 100, whichever is fewer. (See the accompanying box for an explanation of what is meant by “ending homelessness.”) If that goal is met, Minnesota will be the first state in the nation to achieve it, the leaders said.

The chronically homeless population is larger, about 900. But it fell 17 percent in one year, from 2010 to 2011. Another big decline is expected next year as a result of the Affordable Care Act’s extension of Medicaid to more low-income people, thereby improving access to the mental health treatment. A proposal for more state funding of supportive housing will come to the 2014 Legislature to help finish the job.

The rest of the report from the Minnesota homelessness front is not as rosy. A Wilder Research triennial count in 2012, released several months ago, found that while chronic homelessness is down, the total number of Minnesotans lacking reliable housing on any given night was 10,214, a 6 percent increase since 2009.

Even as outreach and supportive housing strategies are thinning the ranks of the long-term homeless, the economy and unstable family circumstances have been pushing more people out of permanent homes. It’s telling that in the latest Wilder count, 46 percent of homeless people are under the age of 21, and the number of two-parent families experiencing homelessness was up 22 percent over 2009’s figure. Young people are more at risk of homelessness than any other age cohort, the Wilder study noted.

But for them this season, there’s good news, too. The state leaders who have made long strides combating chronic homelessness are turning their attention to families with children and unaccompanied youths. On Dec. 19, they announced a new goal: preventing and ending homelessness for families with children and unaccompanied youths by 2020.

Given the trend lines, that goal seems as big a stretch today as Pawlenty’s goal for the chronically homeless did in 2004. But Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration has put top talent on the job — 11 agency heads plus gubernatorial chief of staff Tina Smith, orchestrated with the capable staff leadership of Cathy ten Broeke, the former Heading Home Hennepin director who became the state director to prevent and end homelessness a year ago.

They in turn have enlisted participation by leaders of city and county governments, schools and charities. Both Minneapolis Mayor-elect Betsy Hodges and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman took part in the new goal’s unveiling at Jackson Elementary School in St. Paul. That setting, and the participation of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, underscored that schools will be asked to step up their outreach to homeless youths and families.

Hope lies in the promise that those diverse entities will coordinate their efforts as never before to execute a common strategy. Minnesota has not lacked for do-gooder efforts to combat social ills like homelessness. But too often those well-meaning efforts have failed to employ evidence of what works to hone their strategies, or to consider how their work might blend with others in useful synergy. Making data about results readily available in dashboard format is among the tactics the new homelessness strategy promises.

The new strategy includes a big request — $100 million — for more supportive and affordable housing in the 2014 Legislature’s bonding bill. That amount is as audacious as the goal it serves and may be more than can be achieved in one legislative session. But as state Housing Commissioner Mary Tingerthal noted, state agencies and their partners “can do a better job with existing programs, targeting them differently, redirecting funds to something that might have a higher value.” The Dayton administration’s recognition of that opportunity is more good news for the homeless — and for taxpayers.

  • A goal’s definition

    “Ending homelessness means that if a family or individual does become homeless, we will have a crisis response system to assess their needs and quickly provide them the opportunity to access stable housing. It does not mean that no one will experience homelessness ever again.”

    Source: “Heading Home: Minnesota’s Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness,” December 2013

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