A recent three-day series by The Free Press on homelessness in the Mankato area brought to light some troubling facts: The number of homeless in our community is growing while the resources to help them are shrinking.
The series by Free Press Staff Writer Robb Murray “No Direction Home” drew a picture of homelessness in the community that had previously flown under the radar. We might see a homeless person walking down the street or in the mall, but most had, until now, no idea about the extent of the problem.
In short, there is a problem. The homeless numbers have grown by 20 percent since 2009 in southern Minnesota, according to a Wilder Foundation study. Mankato Area Public Schools reported that the number children with no permanent home rose from 61 last year to 95 more recently. The average stay at the Salvation Army men’s shelter went from 20 days to 33 days in a year.
Homeless shelters such as the Welcome Inn and Theresa House continue to turn many away, day after day. Partners for Affordable Housing, the umbrella organization of both shelters, says it served 54 households with housing for an average of 73 days each.
For every person or family served by the group, five are turned away.
Those who may be on the edge of homelessness find the number of affordable housing units dwindling. Mankato is no longer even taking names for a waiting list of subsidized housing because no more units are available. Federal budget cuts have reduced funding for the voucher program, which reduced the number of vouchers from 425 to 406. City housing officials note that the reduction in funding hurts even more because rents it has to pay continue to go up.
For people in surrounding counties, there is a 12- to 15-month wait for housing vouchers. Officials estimate that with the demand for housing, they could use triple the number of vouchers they get.
Meanwhile, Mankato police find hundreds of abandoned tents along the Minnesota River at the outskirts of Mankato.
Some of the homeless became so through little fault of their own. Some became homeless because of bad decisions made at one time or another in their life. Some had no access to help. Some couldn’t pay for it. Some brought on a their troubles by committing crimes then finding themselves unable to get a job, housing or medical treatment for something such as chemical dependency that may be exacerbating their efforts at self-sufficiency.
But the series also showed that the homeless were sometimes people very similar to normal working folks, including those with children. Their circumstances — in some cases domestic violence — sent them in a direction where they had very few choices. But as we saw from the series, there was a way out for several people who were homeless.
Some got a leg up with a new job and subsidized housing. Some got a job and shelter and day care for their children. Some just found a person in a homeless outreach program who was willing to listen to them.
As our success stories showed, there is a way out of homelessness. And there are organizations and people who are working hard to help the homeless, whether with spiritual needs, physical needs, housing, a job or education.
Many programs already in place work well. Some just need more resources because the population they are serving is growing.
The solutions are within our grasp. Expanding the supply of housing seems to be an simple place to start. Once people get a regular place to stay, they begin to break the cycle of homelessness.
A roof over one’s head creates a kind of simple comfort that comes as a human need. When we find ways to provide that roof, we will be on the way to solving many of the other problems the homeless face that will help remove the barriers to self-sufficiency, something that is another human need.
(Next week: Recommendations to expand emergency and subsidized housing programs)