Janet Williams is the mayor of one of the wealthiest communities in the region. But she knows of a family that spent the summer living in a tent just a few blocks from her home in Savage. She has been told of people living in rented storage units.
Moreover, she adds, when she ran Scott County's libraries, the homeless not only would hang out in them for long stretches -- they would even give out the library's phone number as their own.
"Surprisingly," she says, "homelessness is an issue in Scott County. We need to be more aware of what's happening in our community."
A plan to end homelessness in Scott and Carver counties, and a Nov. 23 event aimed at pulling together all sorts of resources for people who are in that predicament or in danger of it, were topics on Friday for a gathering of civic leaders from across the county.
"More than 1,000 households in Scott County meet the definition of homeless," said Teri Funk of Safe Haven, which operates a homeless shelter near the Shakopee-Prior Lake border. A 2009 survey found, for instance, 152 individuals or families couch-hopping, 101 living in cars or parks, 41 in shelters and 137 facing imminent eviction with no place to go.
The session was a plea for public awareness -- many at risk of homelessness don't know how many resources are available, experts said. But it was also a plea for help on a number of fronts, including affordable housing and the preservation of services as the county and cities head for budget cuts in the weeks to come.
The talk drew expressions of concern, but also a fair number of skeptical questions. Among them:
• County Commissioner Barbara Marschall: "What happens if a person who's probably in need of shelter, but comes with baggage such as gang membership, but once here are here? Without denying the reality of homelessness, are you inviting an expansion of that?"
Funk: "There's quite a bit of screening. If they don't belong here, we're not going to put them here. But I could never promise someone won't break the law. Some do that though to survive -- it doesn't mean they would if they had a job."
• Cy Wolf, a township official: "How much of it is self-inflicted: drugs and alcohol?"
Funk: "I don't have the stats in front of me, but that is part of it."
• Glynn Crooks, vice chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community: "Do you end up helping the same people again and again, and if so, how many times will you do that?"
Funk: "Of course. We help them as many times as they keep coming back."
The effort to attack homelessness is underway at the same time as churches, nonprofits and others are trying to gather resources for any sort of human suffering or need under the umbrella of an organization called FISH, or Families and Individuals Sharing Hope. FISH has been a help, Funk said.
"A prime goal of FISH," County Administrator Gary Shelton said, "is to find a way to mentor a lot of folks who need someone long term to help them change their thinking -- people who didn't get that early in life or lost it along the way."
Canterbury Park has offered space for a major one-day event in November bringing together nonprofits, government agencies and other resources to one spot and inviting people in need to come gain access to services they need, said Patricia Pettit, a county staffer.
"It's a community problem," she said. "If a house is foreclosed, we lose the property tax. A lost job means lost tax income. A person who has no address can't find a job. So we need a community response."
David Peterson • 952-882-9023