The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 1, 2014

Our View: Cities must get creative on homeless problems

Why it matters: Roadblocks to solving homeless problems can be overcome with creative solutions. Homeless people can't wait for a new federal affordable housing program. They're cold and hungry now.

The Mankato Free Press

---- — In Duluth, the community leaders got together to come up with ideas for the city’s burgeoning homeless population and came up with the simple idea of a homeless bill of rights that allows homeless to rest and be in public places for longer period of time.

They proposed emergency shelters — warming houses for the homeless — during frigid weather.

In Salt Lake City, leaders set up more temporary and affordable housing by asking landlords to be part of the solution. They raised money through downtown parking meters to help agencies that support the homeless.

Cities all over America are seeing the need to help the homeless, and in particular, veterans who are homeless. A recently published Free Press series on the homeless in the Mankato area detailed that homelessness is a very real problem. It’s growing while resources for the agencies and housing to help the homeless are dwindling.

Homelessness is a complex problem. It is driven by everything from the background of the homeless person to the availability of very cheap housing to the existence of human resources — those who can counsel the homeless on ways back to self-sufficiency.

But many cities like Duluth and Salt Lake City aren’t waiting for a federal program to help the homeless. There are hundreds of homeless today in our city, and more troubling, many are youth. They can’t wait for a federal housing program.

A Wilder Foundation study showed Duluth had more homeless people per capita than even Minneapolis. Nonprofits and church groups got together to establish temporary emergency shelters. They leave warm coats, blankets and gloves at the places they know the homeless are living.

The Salt Lake City Homeless Outreach Service Team is a partnership between police and homeless service agencies that not only connects the homeless to the resources they need, but directs funding to downtown parking meters to continually raise money for the groups. It’s a unique way to raise money to help the homeless and discourages people from giving their money to panhandlers.

Salt Lake City also has set up a program with the goal of eliminating homelessness among veterans in their city. When there was a shortage of affordable housing, they asked the private sector to help out. Dozens of landlords offered units to homeless veterans.

Cities may want to consider small changes to multiple family zoning ordinances that allow for older homes to be rented out as separate rooms where it’s not now allowed.

In Mankato, fundraising never seems to be a problem, whether it is for the United Way or the Children’s Museum or things like the Kiwanis Holiday Lights. High school youth groups often raise thousands of dollars themselves.

There are creative ideas to help the homeless in even small ways as other cities have shown. It’s up to the Mankato community to figure those out, while the bigger efforts are ongoing.

As we’ve mentioned in the past, some of those bigger efforts include supporting the $50 million in affordable housing bonds in Gov. Mark Dayton’s bonding bill and reinstituting tax credits for landlords to provide affordable rents on existing housing.

But the small projects matter also. The Free Press report detailed the hundreds of tents pitched in the woods along the Minnesota River that serve as homeless gathering places. In Duluth, a church based agency leaves warm jackets and gloves at those places. It’s a simple idea, but it probably goes a long way in the life of a homeless person.

If you have ideas on helping the homeless in Mankato in small or big ways contact Free Press Editor Joe Spear at 344-6382 or