Advocates say progress made in fight against homelessness in Hennepin Countyby Matt Sepic, Minnesota Public Radio
MINNEAPOLIS — Nearly six years into a ten year effort, advocates for the homeless say they have made progress to end homelessness in Hennepin County.
There are 40 percent fewer people sleeping on the streets since 2010 and many more apartments for low-income people, the leaders of Heading Home Hennepin told a Minneapolis city council meeting Tuesday.
Some challenges remain, however.
Mikkel Beckmen, executive director of the Minneapolis nonprofit St. Stephen's Human Services, said because of the mortgage crisis more people are renting now than five years ago and that has pushed up rent. The average lease in the metro costs $965 a month, and is one reason why Forbes Magazine this year ranked the Twin Cities the second-worst place for renters, right behind New York. Beckmen said the crunch in the apartment market combined with the recession means homelessness is still very much a crisis in the Twin Cities.
Stephanie Catches and Corbin Feather Earring have had a rough year. They work — he at a restaurant and she as a personal care assistant. But the couple and their two small children were evicted from their one-bedroom apartment in northeast Minneapolis last spring. Catches said the building was in terrible shape and they went so far as to pay for repairs she said their landlord ignored.
"When it would rain, we'd come home to the house and there would be water. You could walk in and your feet are splashing in the water," Catches said. "And we told them and we told them that it's coming in, and they didn't come and fix it."
Catches said they were kicked out of the apartment after refusing to pay $650 in monthly rent. The family tried a homeless shelter, but they were above the income limit and couldn't stay long. They wound up at a hotel which, at $800 a month, they could barely afford. Other landlords turned them away because of the eviction on their record, Feather Earring said.
Then their financial troubles got worse.
"Now we owe $2,000 because it took them three months to find somebody to move in and they were still charging us rent," Feather Earring said.
They eventually found a new apartment and St. Stephen's Human Services helped them pay the security deposit.
Beckmen said this family's struggle highlights the biggest obstacle to ending homelessness by 2016: affordable housing.
"The low vacancy rate, not enough apartments available for people with incredibly low incomes, especially families," Beckmen said. "There are too many children in shelters and not enough children in their own homes."
But while the problem of homelessness is ever present, there's more help available now than five years ago, said Lisa Thornquist, acting director of Heading Home Hennepin, the group that is trying to end homelessness with funding from government, businesses and religious organizations .
"We've set up a lot of programs in place to serve people who are homeless or to serve people who are at risk of homelessness," Thornquist said.
Heading Home hopes to create 5,000 new units of affordable housing by 2016, either by developing new apartments or subsidizing existing apartments at market-rate.
After five years, Heading Home is halfway there. Another success: more than 350 people who were living on the streets in 2007 are in permanent homes now because of an outreach effort. In the last two years, 5,000 families like Catches' avoided homelessness because of rapid re-housing assistance. That includes more than 200 households affected by last year's tornado in north Minneapolis.
But because of the recession all of these programs are seeing more demand than anyone expected, Thornquist said.
"We've got the economy still working against us and so we have more people coming in to shelter than we ever anticipated, but we know what to do with them," Thornquist said. "But we know what to do with them when we reach them and we can get them housed again."
Beckmen's goal at St. Stephen's is to make homeless shelters unnecessary. He wants to close shelters and get people into permanent housing. But he says with 1,200 to 1,400 people homeless in Hennepin County every night, he may have to add shelter beds.
- Morning Edition, 11/28/2012, 11:20 a.m.