Some Minnesota social service charities say they are seeing record levels of need — even at a time of low unemployment and overall rising prosperity.
Largely stagnant wages and a growing population of struggling seniors, paired with a housing shortage and rising rents, have pushed the Twin Cities' poorest even lower, nonprofits leaders say.
The largest open-to-the-public free meal program in Minnesota, Loaves & Fishes, is on track to serve a record 1 million meals this year. That's one-third more than last year. Minnesotans visited food shelves a record 3.4 million times in 2017, more often than even during the recession. And Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis opened Higher Ground, its new, larger homeless shelter, in January 2017 and filled all of its 320 emergency shelter beds within three months.
"When we opened Higher Ground, we had hoped not to get to our full capacity ever, quite frankly," said Catholic Charities President and CEO Tim Marx.
The nonprofit examined area income, housing and poverty data as part of its mission refresh and found the overall poverty rate has gone down from more than 11 percent during the recession nearly a decade ago to just under 10 percent, but the number of people in extreme poverty has been stubbornly stable at about 4 percent, even ticking up slightly.
A growing number of seniors are facing homelessness, he said, referring to work by Wilder Research that shows the number of older adults in shelters has increased by more than 20 percent over a three-year period ending in 2015.
"We are losing affordable units when the demand for them is greatest," Marx said. "Rents are going up and renters' incomes are not. That's a recipe for increased homelessness and distress."
Union Gospel Mission Twin Cities, which has 200 emergency shelter beds in St. Paul in addition to transitional housing and addiction recovery services, is seeing increased demand, said Brian Molohon, development director. Some of the demand comes from people dealing with opioid addiction, he said. And over the winter, they had to turn people away from the shelter on many nights.
Noah Gerding, development director of People Serving People in downtown Minneapolis, the region's largest family-focused homeless shelter, said it's early to identify a trend, but "we are seeing guest counts at or above what we had planned."
At Loaves & Fishes, July is the busiest month, said Executive Director Cathy Maes. The nonprofit serves healthy cooked meals at 39 sites during the summer. They also do street outreach, serving sandwiches and snacks out of vans on the weekends. About half of their clients are 55 and older and a quarter of clients say they have jobs — but they still need help making ends meet.
"There are still so many hungry people right here in Minnesota," she said. "I think we have to continue to talk about it. People are still in need."
Maes said rising rents and stubbornly low wages are forcing many people to make tough decisions: Do I pay the rent, buy groceries or buy medicine?
And often cheap, starchy foods only exacerbate health problems. Maes said nearly 70 percent of Loaves & Fishes clients report having diabetes.
"We serve healthy, nutritious food, and that is the food that is the most expensive," she said. "People love that and crave that."
Loaves & Fishes board Chairman Stephen Ripple said some of the growth can be attributed to underemployment.
"Yes, they have a job but it doesn't mean they have good food to eat," Ripple said.
Some of the growth could also be a result of charities building more capacity that allows them to address long unmet need in the community, he said.
"We are addressing a thimble full of the need, just a small fraction of the need," Ripple said.
Steven Bolechowski was in line at a meal site Thursday in downtown Minneapolis. Bolechowski, who said he is a Vietnam War veteran, lost his job as a taxi driver and now stays with a friend or sometimes sleeps in his van. As he sat down to a plate of greens, zucchini and a hot beef sandwich, he said he was grateful for the meal.
Maes said she and Ripple have become more vocal about the rising demand for their services as the state of poverty made headlines.
First, the United Nations issued a report in May indicating 40 million Americans live in poverty and 18.5 million Americans live in extreme poverty. The U.N. used the official census definition of extreme poverty, which is having an income lower than half the official poverty rate, according to the Washington Post. In 2016, that was about $12,000 a year for a family of four.
But in a rebuke, the Trump administration said only about 250,000 Americans live in extreme poverty. It cited survey data from the think tank Heritage Foundation, which found only 0.08 percent of American households are in "deep poverty," defined by the Heritage Foundation as living on less than $4 a day.
Maes said her data shows deepening poverty and greater need.
"I don't want to be political about it, but it's just the facts," she said. "Food is the most basic need."