Overflowing homeless shelters forced to turn away familiesby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Dozens of families have been turned away as the growing numbers of homeless means emergency family shelters are full to overflowing most nights in Ramsey and Hennepin counties. The lack of space has caused one family to take desperate action.
Stephanie Kirk, 22, her partner Antonio Walsh, 26, and their 2-year-old daughter are homeless and can't get emergency shelter family beds in Ramsey County because they're full.
Kirk admits she lied to find a place to stay for herself and her daughter by claiming she was abused by her partner. That false claim got them beds in a northern suburban Twin Cities shelter for battered women.
"I really can't tell them much about my situation but that I was a battered woman because I needed a place to stay," Kirk said. "But I'm not really a battered woman, so I basically have to lie and go to the groups and act like I can relate to people's situations and I really can't."
It's not clear how Kirk's false claim of being battered will affect the family's reunification if and when they find housing.
Before that, Kirk said, she and Walsh and their daughter were crashing in abandoned houses in St. Paul.
"We came up with the idea while walking down the street with nowhere to go," she said. Kirk said they saw the abandoned and open houses and figured they could sleep in them for the night.
Hennepin and Ramsey County officials say their emergency shelters, including family shelter beds, are almost always full. Ramsey County commissioner Toni Carter said more than a hundred people couldn't get into shelters in August and September.
"Perhaps 85 families, and 180 children or so, were turned away from shelters that were full," Carter said. "The county and community agencies have been putting a lot of effort into supporting as many families as we possibly can, but we do know that currently the need is much greater than capacity."
In Hennepin County, if emergency family shelters are full, the county places the family in overflow space. Ramsey doesn't have overflow beds, and asks homeless families to try to find a temporary solution on their own while Ramsey officials work to find an apartment for them.
Ramsey County religious groups, through the St. Paul Area Council of Churches, volunteer to supply emergency shelter beds, but those are full most of the time as well.
Sara Liegl, who directs the Council of Churches program, said in the past many of the people seeking emergency shelter were a mom and a child. Liegl said they're seeing a growing number of what she calls intact families: a father, mother and children. She said most have jobs, most are first-time homeless and most are from the Twin Cities.
"Most families, like 80 percent or more, are local families," Liegl said.
That is not the case for Stephanie Kirk, Antonio Walsh and their daughter -- they are from the Chicago area.
The family came to Minnesota about a year ago after hearing they'd have a better chance of getting help here. They tried to get public housing but the screening revealed that Kirk, 22, and Walsh, 26, had been convicted of separate felonies when they were teenagers.
"They called us back in two days and said, 'No, because you have a felony in Illinois," Kirk said.
That has made finding housing and employment more difficult.
Walsh said he picks up some work through a temp agency, but it's been cut back to about less than 20 hours per week.
Kirk tells property owners up front about their criminal backgrounds, and she said at least one has told her that he appreciated her honesty and would be willing to rent them an apartment if they can come up with the money.
Ramsey County will pay for one month's rent if the family can find a place to live. Time is a factor, since Kirk is eight-and-half months pregnant with a due date in early November, and her family's dire situation appears to mirror the challenges facing homeless shelters.
A Wilder Research survey last year showed family shelter use around the state up 25 percent from 2006. The survey, done once every three years, counted more than 9,000 people using shelter beds in Minnesota. The survey's overall estimate was that 13,000 people are homeless each night and that the shortage of space is most acute for homeless teens and children.
A federal stimulus grant of more than $24 million is helping Minnesota counties pay for emergency shelter services. The money runs out in 2012.
To add to the shelter squeeze, the number of emergency shelter beds for families in Ramsey County may drop by 20 at the end of the year when some temporary funding runs out.
- Morning Edition, 10/13/2010, 8:20 a.m.