Happenstance and a stronger economy aren't enough.
Homelessness is a crippling condition for anyone who experiences it. But for children, being without an every-night place of one's own is particularly damaging — physically, psychologically and intellectually. That's why the headline from the latest annual count of Minnesota's homeless population — a 17 percent year-over-year decline in the number of homeless families with children — deserves more than passing notice.
For the first time since 2010, the number of homeless people in families with children dropped in the annual point-in-time count conducted under the direction of the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness. It went from 4,725 in January 2014 to 3,912 in 2015.
One might chalk up that change to an improving economy — until one looks at the rest of the report. Overall homelessness was down 10 percent, the biggest such drop since the count began in 2007. But a 6 percent increase was seen in the number of "unsheltered" homeless living outdoors, in cars or in structures never intended for human habitation. That's related to another wrong-direction statistic — a 27 percent increase in the number of people deemed chronically homeless, those without a permanent residence for at least one year or four or more occasions in the last three years.
The only other bright spot in the point-in-time count is among veterans — and that is likely not a coincidence. For nearly a decade, state housing policymakers and the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs have collaborated to identify veterans without permanent housing and follow up with support that gets them off the street. As a result, homelessness among veterans in Minnesota has been cut in half since 2010 and is on its way to eradication.
That decline did not happen by accident or because the economy strengthened. Neither did the improvement among homeless families with kids. They, too, have been the targets of newly coordinated efforts among providers of services — particularly in Hennepin County, which accounted for the lion's share of the decline in the statewide count.
Since late 2013, a Hennepin County strategy called the Stable Families Initiative has sought out the 25 percent of families in homeless shelters who have come for aid more than once in the past two years. They were contacted and offered supportive services tailored to their circumstances — a mix of financial subsidies, early childhood care and education, employment counseling, and intensive case management.
The result: 30 percent fewer families occupied homeless shelters in Hennepin County last month than one year ago. That's a change large enough to win praise from federal officials, reported Cathy ten Broeke, state director of efforts to prevent and end homelessness. When national numbers come out in a few months, she expects Minnesota's decrease in family homelessness to be among the nation's most significant, and Hennepin County's approach to be touted as a model. That will be gratifying — especially because it means more Minnesota children have the benefit of sleeping each night in a place they know as home.