A pair of seemingly unrelated events — a global pandemic and international outrage over the killing of George Floyd — have led to an unexpected outcome: Minnesotans are clamoring to end homelessness.
When Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order went into effect, those of us with homes went home and stayed home. When Minnesotans emerged, all of us could see that people without homes were staying put, too, in tents and homeless encampments. As encampments grew, the invisible was made visible.
Responding to the pandemic, state agencies, counties, cities and service partners worked together nonstop out of concern for the safety of those sleeping outside and in shelters. Together these partners have provided more than 2,000 hotel rooms, food, funding and services to people without a home statewide.
These efforts have minimized the spread of the virus for those sleeping outside. Remarkably, there has not been a single death from COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness to date. And, where possible, staff are helping people transition out of hotels and into permanent housing, one by one.
All of the pieces of the puzzle must be in place to succeed. These include securing hotel and shelter space, food, funding, and most importantly, trained professionals to work with the residents.
Finding enough support staff is the critical missing piece. Due to the enormous strain put on our social service system by COVID-19, service providers have reached the outer limits of what they can do. There simply aren’t enough staff at this time.
Like many of our governmental partners, we have heard from hundreds of people worried about the rights of people experiencing homelessness. One of our partners, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, took the unprecedented step of opening parks as a refuge to people sleeping outside. We are committed to working in partnership with city, county and private partners to bring resources and support. No entity can do this alone.
Together we lead the state’s Interagency Council on Homelessness, and we have been advancing best practices and strengthening partnerships since long before the arrival of COVID-19. We have seen firsthand how so many people have worked tirelessly to protect people who don’t have a home. We are heartened to see community members standing up and calling for Minnesota to treat homelessness like the public emergency it is.
People sleeping outside deserve our urgent attention and cooperation now, and from now on.
Homelessness is a problem that has been with us for decades. But we also know that homelessness is a solvable problem. Housing and services end homelessness.
To people experiencing homelessness, we want you to know: You are a top priority of the Walz-Flanagan administration, and we are fighting for you. This is why the governor and lieutenant governor are requesting $360 million in housing funding ($260 million in housing infrastructure bonds and public housing rehabilitation and $100 million in emergency housing assistance to help people pay rent, mortgages and other housing bills). This is the largest housing request in state history.
The Legislature’s work is still unfinished. When legislators are next called back into session, we urge them to support the funds for housing. These resources are critical to creating and supporting deeply affordable housing targeted to people experiencing homelessness. Not taking action will increase the numbers of people sleeping outside all across the state.
Let’s seize this opportunity to secure the housing funding that’s needed to get people into stable housing. It’s about time we addressed homelessness like the emergency it is and always has been.
Jennifer Ho is commissioner, Minnesota Housing; Jodi Harpstead is commissioner, Minnesota Department of Human Services; Jan Malcolm is commissioner, Minnesota Department of Health; Cathy ten Broeke is assistant commissioner and executive director, Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness.