As home foreclosure and unemployment rates climb, increasing numbers of Minnesotans have no permanent place to call home. America's economic crisis only exacerbates the already vexing problem of homelessness.
That's why ambitious state and county efforts to end homelessness should grow and thrive. Though the public, private and nonprofit partners involved in these programs are also experiencing budget stress, investing in stable housing can reap big returns.
Two promising programs -- Heading Home Minnesota and its regional affiliate Heading Home Hennepin -- have succeeded in getting more people into decent housing and keeping them there.
Started two years ago, the initiatives coordinate the fight against homelessness by combining state, county and city resources with help from the private and nonprofit sectors. The plan integrates existing resources such as affordable housing and job training and relies on around-the-clock street outreach teams provided by social service agencies.
A few years ago, the state set a goal of creating 4,000 new permanent housing units with the intention of ending long-term homelessness by 2010. The state is more than halfway to that goal, with people placed in 2,068 housing units so far. And in Hennepin County, moving more of the chronically homeless into permanent housing has reduced the number of arrests for loitering, trips to detox and repeated visits to shelters.
Leaders of the county effort say that 266 persistently homeless people (mostly single men) accounted for 70,000 nights in shelters, jails and detox over five years, and those stays cost about $4 million. Since 2006, the program has placed about 143 adults in permanent housing.
The Heading Home philosophy wisely steps away from more punitive strategies. In the past, some housing programs required sobriety or were otherwise quick to evict if certain rules were not followed or a job was lost. And while no illegal activity is tolerated, the idea is to provide housing stability that in turn can bring stability to other parts of the homeless person's life.
In 2006, a Wilder Research Center survey found that about 9,200 people in Minnesota were homeless each night. About 30 percent of those were children age 17 and younger, and about a third were in Hennepin County. An estimated 30 to 40 percent of the state's homeless have problems with mental illness.
The programs aim to help individuals or families who have been homeless more than a year or on a recurring basis. That means having rental assistance and counseling or other help to fight accompanying problems, including drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, domestic violence and lack of skills.
While providing that support has initial costs, keeping people in housing saves money long term in social services, law enforcement, court time and detox visits. Health care costs can also be reduced because those who live on the street are more likely to become ill and go to emergency rooms. Having a place to live can also improve opportunities to find work. And for families with children, a stable home means that kids have a better chance of doing well in school.
Heading Home Minnesota is making headway. It helps people find places to call home -- and provides the support necessary for them to stay put.