The recent article about homeless families with children staying at the Drake ("Substitute Shelter," Oct. 14) has justifiably raised concern and alarm, even outrage, from members of our community. To be sure, the Drake is not the best answer for children and their parents who have lost their home; and Hennepin County residents should not be content with this setting as an appropriate and final solution. But in our shared desire to address this crisis, it is important to recognize that the real problem is not the Drake Hotel or Hennepin County.

Using the Drake Hotel as a substitute family shelter is, in fact, a symptom of a larger crisis. Today, family homelessness is increasing in Minnesota and throughout the country at an alarming rate. Why is this happening? What solutions are needed?

Hennepin County funded shelter use for families is up 27 percent compared with one year ago. The mortgage foreclosure crisis, an economic downturn with job loss and decreasing affordable housing are all contributors to this increase in homelessness among the most vulnerable in our community -- our children. The rental vacancy rate is lower and rents have gone up, causing longer stays in shelter as well as more economic hardships and homelessness for families. This is a cause-and-effect cycle. In essence, a perfect storm.

Hennepin County stands alone in our metro region in its commitment to provide shelter for families in need. When the existing shelters are filled to overcapacity, Hennepin has looked to other means to provide shelter, and with limited options, that is why the Drake Hotel is being used. There is no other metro area county that will shelter families when limited shelter capacity is full. When families ask for help in other metro counties, many are turned away: to the streets, to cars, to abandoned buildings or other unsafe conditions.

The best option is affordable housing. Imagine you are a young mother with one child who receives $437 through MFIP each month or a father with two children earning minimum wage. How many housing opportunities are available? We can create solutions to this housing crisis by focusing on the systemic elephant in the room rather than on stop-gap efforts or on the victims. Our families need solutions that will build their self-reliance by increasing access to housing subsidies, child care, employment training, living-wage employment and challenging the racism within the tenant screening process.

You can help to decrease homelessness by supporting the creation of affordable housing in your own community, by participating in the collective efforts to end homelessness through Heading Home Minnesota (headinghome, and by demanding legislative action to provide the funding required to meet the needs of these children and their families. It is absolutely vital that we change our focus from the symptoms of this homeless crisis to the solutions that will improve our community's ability to adequately respond to it.

Betsy LaMarre-Maddox and Mike Manhard are cochairs of the Heading Home Hennepin Prevention Committee.