Amid an acute housing shortage, the administration of Gov. Tim Walz announced nearly $5 million in new investments to increase emergency shelter capacity across Minnesota as part of a broader public-private effort to reduce homelessness.

After months of cajoling by Walz, an unusual coalition of corporate and philanthropic organizations has established a new emergency fund, the Minnesota Homeless Fund, which has raised $4.82 million from private foundations, corporations and tribal organizations. Officials say they hope to raise nearly twice that amount.

"This is a call to action," Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said at a crowded event Thursday morning in Minneapolis. "It is completely unacceptable to the governor and to me that anyone is sleeping outside, especially at this time of year."

The new funds will be deployed rapidly, officials said, to open up hundreds of overnight shelter beds in churches, public buildings and existing shelters across the state. Already, officials have identified a half-dozen sites that will immediately add about 150 shelter beds statewide.

Speaking with the urgency of a military commander, Walz said combating homelessness during the winter was "a triage and surge situation" designed to get people out of dangerous environments. He emphasized the need for speed, given the season, and releasing the funds quickly to bring more people in from the cold and onto the path of permanent and stable housing.

"Homelessness is solvable," Walz told a crowd gathered at the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, one of the nonprofits that will receive funding to open more shelter beds. "It is a math problem, not a character problem. It is a math problem and we are prepared to solve that problem."

Homelessness rising

The new project comes at a time when the population of Minnesotans sleeping outside is rising, particularly in the Twin Cities. The increase runs counter to national trends, in which most states have seen steady declines in homelessness since the Great Recession ended in 2009.

A statewide survey last year by Wilder Research in St. Paul found that the number of people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota reached a record high of 10,233 in 2018, up 10% from 2015 and up 32% since 2006.

The sharpest increase was among older Minnesotans, who typically have chronic health problems and physical disabilities that limit their ability to obtain work. Homelessness among those 55 or older has increased 25% since 2015, according to the Wilder surveys.

Nonprofit leaders point to a range of causes, including a shortage of affordable housing, rising rents, a protracted opioid epidemic and inadequate access to mental health services. A majority of Minnesotans who are experiencing homelessness report having a serious mental illness, defined as a mental condition so serious that it impairs their ability to function. That compares with 5% of the overall population.

Minneapolis encampment

The crisis came into sharp focus last fall and winter, when several hundred people erected tents along a highway soundwall in south Minneapolis and stayed there for months.

Like tent cities that have sprung up on the West Coast, the sprawling encampment, known as the "Wall of Forgotten Natives," became a safe haven from the violence and isolation of living on the streets. It took nearly five months and an unprecedented push by city officials, tribal leaders and humanitarian aid workers to transition people from the camp near the Little Earth housing project to emergency shelters and more stable housing.

Last week, dozens of American Indian community members and activists returned to the site of the homeless camp to call attention to the plight of people sleeping outside and what they view as slow progress in expanding housing options for low-income people. They erected a teepee on the site and said they would establish another tent encampment if officials do not develop more emergency shelter beds, including a "culturally specific" shelter for Natives experiencing homelessness.

"The slow pace towards finding a solution is unacceptable and the community can no longer stand idle," the protesters said in a statement.

Patina Park, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, said the large camp brought greater public attention to the problem of homelessness and played a role in bringing public and private sector organizations together.

"Everyone going downtown saw [the camp] day after day after day and heard the stories and saw the Facebook posts," Park said. "It made it a real issue rather than just another homeless report with statistics."

In Hennepin County, the number of unsheltered individuals reached 732 in July, up 40% from a year earlier, according to the latest count in July. Officials attribute the sharp increase to rising rents and a severe lack of affordable housing. The county supports a network of emergency shelters with about 900 beds for single adults, but these shelters are at or near capacity on most nights, which means that some people are turned away to the streets.

The St. Paul & Minnesota Foundation will manage the new emergency fund, with oversight from public and private sector representatives as well as individuals who have experienced homelessness. The fund has received $1 million each from the Metropolitan Council, the Schulze Family Foundation and the Pohlad Family Foundation, plus contributions from a half-dozen corporations.

The funds will be put to work immediately. In the coming weeks, new shelter beds will be added at churches in Washington County, a women's shelter in Ramsey County and in rented homes and apartments in northern Minnesota, officials said. "What we are talking about here is not theoretical, not a dream," Walz said. "These [investments] will happen right now."

On Thursday evening, a march was held in downtown Minneapolis to honor those who have died while homeless.