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An article in Sunday's Star Tribune ("Hennepin County, Minneapolis homeless shelters facing a $13-million-a-year fiscal cliff," May 8) smartly pointed out that a crisis is looming on our horizon — that funding for solutions to address the increasing numbers facing homelessness may soon disappear.
A 2019 report published by the Wilder Foundation estimated that on any given night in Minnesota, as many as 20,000 people do not have a place to call home — whether they are living outdoors, in their cars or on a friend's couch. This was a 30% increase from their report three years earlier; it also doesn't reflect any effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. (A new Wilder report on homelessness is expected next spring.)
The rise in large homeless encampments — such as the 2018 Franklin Hiawatha encampment and, more recently, one in downtown's North Loop — are indicative of the increasing numbers of those who are chronically homeless.
The pandemic has had a profound effect on Minnesota housing, as well. Analyses by PolicyLink.org currently shows an estimated 75,000 Minnesota households behind on their rent and in danger of eviction. Social service experts had predicted a sharp increase in evictions as eviction moratoriums ended, and this is now playing out, as reported in another Star Tribune article from Sunday ("Minnesota eviction filings soared in April," May 8).
The need to assist the burgeoning homeless population and those who are on the brink is an urgent one.
Ironically, it was the pandemic that provided the opportunity to invest in new approaches to chronic homelessness, through funding provided by the CARES Act and other emergency appropriations. The pandemic necessitated a push toward emergency sheltering with safer conditions to limit the virus's spread within the homeless population.
As an example, CARES funding allowed the Harbor Light Center in Minneapolis to renovate its emergency shelter areas last year. In an effort called "de-densifying," the shelter was restructured to provide safer distancing, new contactless bathroom fixtures, private showers, personal lockers, more natural light and bedside charging outlets — all designed to create a safer, more dignified environment. At the same time, the shelter added more case workers to refocus efforts on moving people from homelessness into more stable housing situations.
Those in the business of helping the homeless would agree that the best outcomes are generated using service-rich environments with lower staff-to-client ratios and programming designed to transition people from homelessness to stable housing. The pandemic provided one of the clearest examples how such solutions can succeed.
The Salvation Army was just one partner in an initiative created by Hennepin County called Hotels to Housing. It was launched out of urgency in the early days of the pandemic to provide safe shelter to the most vulnerable within the homeless community, utilizing vacant hotel space as temporary housing units. It was successful in helping restrict COVID-19's spread, but more importantly, it focused on providing services and case management that helped move clients into stable housing solutions — rather than see them return to the streets.
The Hotels to Housing facilities have now closed down, but the results have been overwhelmingly positive. Since its launch in July 2020, 95% of their 464 clients are still living in stable housing situations. Providing service-rich shelter environments that address physical needs and provide caseworker guidance will deliver successful long-term outcomes — helping clients move from dependency to self-sufficiency.
Great strides in addressing the needs of the homeless have been made in the last two years. As emergency pandemic funding starts to dry up, support for programs proven to transition people into stable housing are in danger of being scaled back or shut down.
What is needed now is a continued commitment of dedicated individuals, corporations, churches, municipalities and legislatures to allocate the funding necessary for proven solutions such as these.
Dan Jennings is commander, Salvation Army Northern Division.