The small pickup truck stood alone in the big-box parking lot, cloaked in the dark winter night.
Inside, a woman slept, a dog at her side. The windows were taped shut, the dashboard was scattered with plastic food containers and a tarp covered a mound of possessions in the truck bed.
Rebecca Bowers tapped the window. When the woman awoke, Bowers explained that she was conducting a homelessness survey for Dakota County.
“I’m not turning you in or anything,” she said. The woman agreed to talk, but only through the closed window.
Bowers leaned into the glass and scribbled notes on a clipboard. The woman said she had been homeless for a year or more.
The number of homeless people in Minnesota has reportedly begun to fall, but in Dakota County the number has risen. Resources haven’t kept up — shelter space is limited, particularly for single adults, and a low vacancy rate has pushed rents higher.
Local church congregations have come together to create a shelter from scratch, and the county is pursuing space in St. Paul, but those efforts are still unfolding.
Bowers, Dakota County’s housing resource developer, organizes the annual Point in Time (PIT) count — a federal survey that tallies homelessness nationwide. Dakota County’s count shows the unsheltered population nearly tripled between 2013 and 2014. This year’s count found 63 unsheltered people — including 41 single people — up from about 50 in the previous two years.
The higher numbers can be attributed, in part, to recent efforts to improve accuracy. Partnerships with local service providers have strengthened the picture of homelessness in Dakota County, said community services director Kelly Harder.
“Yes, the numbers are more accurate, we’re more engaged, and that’s all positive,” he said. “What’s underneath all of it is housing remains unaffordable for some.”
Dakota County’s rental vacancy rate is under 2 percent, and what’s available is often too expensive for someone working a minimum-wage job. About half the people identified in this year’s PIT count were employed at least part-time.
Meanwhile, there’s not much shelter space. There are 37 beds for single men at Cochran Recovery Services in Hastings, but there’s no shelter for single women — just a few beds at Dakota Woodlands family shelter in Eagan.
That was a problem for Jackie, who spent two nights in her car after her ex-boyfriend broke into her home and attacked her. She knew she had to leave, but didn’t know where to go. Her 17-year-old daughter wanted to live elsewhere instead of going with her to a shelter, so she had few options.
“Nobody would help me because my daughter refused to come with me,” said 37-year-old Jackie, who asked that her last name not be used. “It didn’t make any sense to me. [If] you’re homeless, you’re homeless.”
Numbers don’t tell story
Driving through West St. Paul on the night of this year’s PIT count, Bowers scanned for signs — the van hooked up to a whirring generator, the dilapidated trailer in the Burger King parking lot.
“It’s so hard to tell, really,” she said, eyeing parked cars at the YMCA. “In a lot of ways, the downtown homelessness is easier to count.”
The PIT count, a requirement of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), happens in January. It includes reports from shelters in addition to surveys of unsheltered people, and informs policy and funding decisions.
The first count was in 2005. The January date was chosen because of the cold, said spokesman Brian Sullivan. The idea was that unsheltered people would flock to shelters in low temperatures, making them easier to count.
Cold can distort data
But the cold weather can also present challenges. People who sleep outside in warm weather may not seek out shelter beds in the cold, opting instead to ride a bus all night or crash with a friend.
“The count is really hard for us as a state,” said Beth Holger-Ambrose, executive director at youth-serving organization the Link. “Minnesota has brought this up to [HUD] in the past, but I just don’t think it’s gone anywhere.”
Minnesota’s Wilder Foundation has conducted its own statewide study since 1991. The triennial survey, conducted in October, tends to produce lower numbers than the PIT because it focuses on interviewing people rather than on counting them. The 2015 numbers show 50 unsheltered people in Dakota County, of nearly 300 identified as homeless.
In suburban and rural areas, counts tend to be particularly low because of the lack of shelter space, said study co-director Michelle Gerrard. A homeless person from Dakota County may travel to Hennepin County to find shelter and end up being counted there.
“It’s really important for people in suburban areas to understand that just because we only found 50 people, that doesn’t mean that’s all we have,” Gerrard said.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, in a church meeting room overlooking a quiet Eagan lake, more than three dozen people said the same prayer.
The group included leaders from about 40 Dakota County congregations who first came together this winter after learning that Cochran was considering closing its shelter. Their plan — and the subject of their prayer — is to create a shelter for single adults. There are few details beyond a goal to house between 35 and 48 people, based on county estimates for immediate need.
“I think this is our moment,” said Jenny Mason, a pastor who’s on the group’s steering committee. “I haven’t been around in Dakota County that long, but I have felt so supported in this by all these congregations coming together and staying engaged.”
Supporting the congregations’ initiative is one piece of Dakota County’s plan to increase shelter space. The county is also partnering with Catholic Charities, which runs the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul, to create more shelter options. The next step, said community services director Harder, is working with the local Community Development Agency to figure out longer-term housing solutions.
“A person can have a lot of things in life,” Bowers said, “but if they don’t have housing, their life is just a mess.”