State action urged to curb rising homelessness

Photo by Chris Jun

Homelessness, ever-present though it is, doesn’t have to be everlasting. “It is a totally solvable issue,” said Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless (MCH) Executive Director Senta Leff. “This is about correcting the system.”

Said system, however, has seen a 10 percent increase in the state’s homeless population over the past three years, according to Wilder Research’s 2018 Minnesota Homeless Study released earlier this month.

Wilder deployed thousands of volunteers to conduct more than 4,000 in-person interviews with individuals about how they became homeless and what they need to get back on their feet, which, Leff acknowledged, can’t take into account those who weren’t surveyed. 

The estimation is that, since 2015, there was a 62 percent increase in homeless who were not in a formal shelter, and the rate of unsheltered children went up 56 percent.

“Sixty-three of Minnesota’s 87 counties do not have a fixed site shelter. If we maintain the status quo, this dangerous trend line will continue,” said Leff in a press release. “Encampments will become more frequent, and the number of Minnesotans sleeping outside in life-threatening temperatures will continue to climb.”

Leff told the MSR that as bleak as conditions are for those who can find shelter, it is catastrophic for those who can’t. Those unfortunate ones wind up subsisting under bridges, in cars and trucks, and in makeshift encampments like the tent village South Minneapolis saw this past winter, amongst other last-ditch resources. 

“The number of people who can’t even get into a shelter has spiked dramatically,” said Leff. “They’re living outside.”

MCH hosted Homeless Day on the Hill on March 13 to publicize the dilemma and bring pressure to bear on politicians holding the purse strings.

“It was really powerful,” Leff told MSR.  “About 850 people turned out from across the state. We filled a hearing room to capacity and they opened an overflow room for us, then a second overflow room. More than anything, people with [homeless] experience spoke to the issue and were heard.”

Governor Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan were among those in attendance. Governor Walz said at the event, “It’s a moral imperative to make sure people have a safe place that they can call home, a safe place to raise their children. It’s absolutely foundational.”

Among the institutions on hand was Tubman, formerly the Harriet Tubman Center, one of 200 members of Homes for All. According to the center, the vast majority of women who seek shelter are victims of domestic violence. 

Accordingly, the National Network to End Domestic Violence documented as of 2017 that between 22 and 57 percent of homelessness among women is caused by domestic violence. More than 90 percent of homeless women experience severe physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives, and 63 percent have been victims of intimate partner violence.

Photo by Thai Phan-Quang A mother testifies during Homeless Day on the Hill

In addition, Wilder reported last year that an estimated 6,000 Minnesota youth subsist on the street with almost half of homeless females having had children and 41 percent trying to care for their young without a roof overhead. 

“Which is why,” said Leff, “we’re advocating for the Homeless Youth Act to provide housing and services for at-risk youth and young adults who, in dangerous situations, are at risk [to become] homeless or are experiencing homelessness.”       

The overall picture is also compounded by a problem endemic to society in general: racism.  “It’s an issue rooted in systemic racism. [African Americans] are more likely to experience homelessness than their White counterparts,” said Leff. 

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 63 percent of people experiencing homelessness identify as people of color or Indigenous peoples.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness observed in a January report, “The effects of long-standing discrimination linger and perpetuate disparities in poverty, housing, criminal justice, and health care, among other areas. These disparities, in turn, can contribute to more African Americans experiencing homelessness.

“Any effort to end homelessness in the United States must address the range of issues that have resulted from racial inequity. This includes assuring affordable, stable housing for all. Systems, programs and individuals that serve people experiencing homelessness should monitor outcomes to eliminate disparities,” according to the Alliance.

Leff believes the government’s power structure has let Americans down. “The federal government slashed the HUD budget by about 70 percent back in the ’80s. The modern-day version of homelessness [began] at that point,” she said.

“We can trace what we see now back to that point. We are working with partners on both sides of the [political] aisle to invest in housing as a basic form of infrastructure.”

As such, the MCH is advocating for legislation to provide $15M every two years for the Emergency Services Program (ESP). ESP, which is the state’s primary source for emergency shelter and services, presently operates on $844,000 annually.

The requested funds would go well beyond merely maintaining a status quo that does not meet the rising housing demands; rather, the funds would greatly strengthen efforts to actually reverse and eventually end chronic destitution by providing stable, short-term housing and resources.

For Leff, it’s about righting the system’s wrongs. “We’re just setting the clock back 30 years,” Leff told the MSR.

“There are services and organizations in people’s lives, and we need that until we solve this problem. But the root of it is upstream. It’s the system that’s broken, not the people interacting with it. So that’s what we have to address: policy and resources.”

To view the 2018 Homeless Study, visit

For more info about the MN Homeless Coalition, visit