The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 8, 2013

No Direction Home, Day 1: More Mankato homeless now than 10 years ago

Young and old seeking help from a variety of sources

By Robb Murray
rmurray@mankatofreepress.com

---- — Read Day 1 stories in pdf format

Officer Wayne Terry clicks his seat belt into place and puts the squad car into drive.

“This is what I call making the rounds,” he says.

He pulls away and heads for the first spot on his list: the river. After pulling into Riverfront Park, Terry takes a hard right onto the bike path.

“Right along here is where a lot of them used to sleep,” Terry says, referring to the homeless. “When they put this park in, a lot of them were displaced.”

Heading down the path, which follows the river and winds around the wastewater treatment plant and behind a limestone quarry, he eventually stops at a seemingly random spot on the trail.

He parks and locks his squad and heads down a trail that leads to the river.

“You can see there's a well-worn path here,” he says.

Closer to the river, he stops.

“There's one of them,” he says. “You can see where he's sort of marked his territory.”

In an area roughly the size of a school playground, a series of trees have been painted with varying shades of yellow spray paint. Inside, on a small bluff, are the makings of a crude campsite. Stacked brush keeps out the wind. A clear plastic tarp is slung like a tent over a pallet, which appears to be a sleeping area. Clotheslines run from one end of the bluff area to the other holding T-shirts and scarves.

A half football field away is another campsite. Sleeping bags, blankets and shirts are draped over fallen giant cottonwood trees. There's a cooler, a grill, a cart for transporting things.

Terry is the Mankato Department of Public Safety's homeless liaison. Each officer is assigned a part of town for their community policing efforts, and since his neighborhood includes the Salvation Army — where the men's shelter houses up to 27 men on cold winter nights — he's been tagged with the liaison role.

He makes the rounds visiting people who either have no place to go or who choose to live alone out in the elements.

He rattles the tents at both sites, but the men aren't home. They're most likely in town staying warm at the Blue Earth County Library or getting a meal at the Salvation Army. Wherever they are, they're blending in with the rest of the population.

Homelessness in southern Minnesota is a growing problem. Whatever the reasons behind it are, more people are homeless today in southern Minnesota than 10 years ago. And there are twice as many people living below the poverty line now than in 2001. The Mankato area has services through the city, county and area nonprofits, but the barriers to people at risk avoiding homelessness — and to homeless people climbing out — are substantial.

Jobs exist in the area, but many of them pay minimum wage. There are places to live, but not many, and what is out there is typically beyond the reach of someone earning $7.25 per hour. There are housing assistance programs, but many of them are temporary, and Mankato's Section 8 housing program is closed because it can't accept any more participants.

To stem the tide, a series of shelters house the homeless and help some of them get back on their feet, and other social service programs are also available. But even then, sometimes people fall through the cracks.

“Homelessness is never gonna go away,” Terry says. “What I'm trying to do out here isn't about enforcing laws. We're trying to help people. We're trying to help everybody coexist.”

Scope of the problem

In 1991, the Wilder Foundation — a Twin Cities-based nonprofit that monitors poverty and homelessness in Minnesota — estimated roughly 3,000 people are living homeless in Minnesota. In 2012, that number climbed to roughly 14,000.

The Wilder Foundation's number for homelessness found that the region identified as southeastern Minnesota — a large chunk of the state from Mankato down to the Iowa border and all the way east to the Wisconsin border — is seeing growing homelessness as well.

In 2009, 483 people were identified as homeless. Three years later, that number climbed to 619.

Poverty in Blue Earth County paints a similar picture. The national poverty rate — the income an individual needs to meet basic needs — is about $11,000. The county, actually, has an abnormally high number of people living at or below the poverty rate. In fact, at nearly 19 percent, Blue Earth County's poverty rate is the highest of any county not on an Indian reservation.

Carrol Meyers-Dobbler from Partners for Affordable Housing likens the Mankato area to oil and water.

"We have a lot of millionaires here," she said. "And we have a lot of people who are struggling."

A large portion of those are children, some of whom are living with their parents, and some who are not. Mankato Area Public Schools keeps track of the number of kids who identify as having no permanent home. Throughout the 2012-2013 academic year, there were 61 students who, at some point throughout the year, reported having no place to go. This year, that number jumped to 95.

Over at The Reach, they deal firsthand with kids who need help. The Reach is a homeless youth outreach program funded by Lutheran Social Service, the state's largest nonprofit. Opened in February 2011, The Reach is busier now than ever.

Since opening, The Reach has helped 73 youth find temporary housing, distributed more than 7,000 food and drink items to kids in need, provided nearly 11,000 health and hygiene items, and graduated 42 kids through its independent living skills class.

Recent figures released by the Department of Housing and Urban Development showed a decline in homelessness nationwide. That trend did not hold true, however, for Minnesota. The number of homeless people in the U.S. declined for a third straight year, helped by sharp drop-offs in veteran and chronic homelessness, according to a HUD survey released in November. The numbers are based on a single-day count of homeless people in 3,000 cities across the country, including Mankato.

The fact that the count is done in January, local experts say, is at best a misleading count. People who find temporary shelter to escape the cold are not counted among the homeless, which experts at the Minnesota Valley Action Council say is far from an accurate picture of homelessness in parts of the country where winter is a major factor.

More than 610,000 people were homeless at the time of the count, down from 633,782 — a 4 percent drop from the previous year, according to HUD. The number of homeless veterans stood at 57,849, down nearly 5,000 (8 percent) from the previous year. The number of chronically homeless people declined 7 percent to 92,593. The number of people in homeless families fell 7 percent to 222,197, according to the report.

Minnesota was one of the states in the study that showed homelessness going up. In the "Homeless People in Families" category, Minnesota's count was 282, an increase of 6.7 percent over the year before.

Barriers

Why people become homeless is a complicated question. Why they can't pull themselves out of that situation may be even more complicated.

Ask anyone who deals with the homeless in the Mankato area what the No. 1 problem is, and most of them won't hesitate to say: lack of affordable housing.

Finding housing on the lower end of the rent price spectrum is difficult. Finding help from the federal government is even harder.

One place where they do get help is from the Minnesota Valley Action Council, a nonprofit that helps people get emergency housing assistance or emergency heating assistance. They help people get vouchers to purchase things such as gas to get to work. They run a program where people who qualify can get cars cheap.

Of all the staff at MVAC, no one deals with the homeless population as much as Kate Hengy-Gretz.

“I'm talking to five to 10 new households per week who simply cannot afford their housing,” Hengy-Gretz said. “The folks I deal with are truly living paycheck to paycheck.”

At Partners for Affordable Housing, Meyers-Dobbler said she's given dozens of talks in the community. Every time she does, it's an education for people.

“People are surprised when I go out in the community and talk about the numbers,” she said.

Last year, Meyers-Dobbler said, Partners for Affordable Housing served 54 households with an average length of stay of 73 days.

Partners takes in men and women at its Welcome Inn facility. Next door at its Theresa House, they take single women and families with children.

"For every one that we serve, we turn away five households," Meyers-Dobbler said.

Kyle Rollings, who runs the men's shelter at the Salvation Army, said there's one other barrier that often contributes to homelessness but that might not get talked about as much: personal responsibility.

All men who stay at the shelter must do chores, whether it be vacuuming, mopping, doing dishes or cleaning tables after meals. They're also expected make the beds they sleep in at night and keep their areas clean. They're also prohibited from staying at the shelter if they're intoxicated or high. If they are, and they need a place to stay, staff will call the police and they'll generally be taken to a detox center. Rollings said it's very rare that a man objects to the house rules.

The demographics of who is staying at the shelter have remained relatively constant, although there have been some slight variations.

In the 2011-2012 shelter season, the largest group of men (34 percent, 24 men) fell in the 18-24 age range. Last season, the biggest group fell in the 40-49 range (28 percent, 25 men). The average stay, however, jumped dramatically from two years ago to last year, which Rollings said may be attributable to the harsher weather. In the 2011-12 season, the average stay was 20 days. Last year, that number was 33.

Rollings said he's met a lot of men who have been through a lot of hardship, and much of it was brought on themselves. He estimates 8 out of 10 of the men in the shelter have criminal histories, which makes it more difficult to find gainful employment and, in some cases, difficult to find housing.

"I think it's a huge struggle for them," he said.

Many of them are also dealing with chemical dependency issues as well. Rollings said that, in some cases, the men are their own worst enemies.

"It all comes down to the person," he said. "Where does it all start, and where does it all end? The person."

Poverty rich area

Officer Terry is no stranger to the river banks. He walks them weekly to check on the homeless.

"If you walk up and down these banks in either direction, you'll find hundreds of abandoned tents," he says on one recent river bank walk.

Terry acknowledges the homeless aren't exactly the pride of any community. But he also says he's seen cases where people who had once been sleeping in the park or digging through restaurant garbage cans have pulled themselves out of that life. It all comes down to one word: housing.

"We've had people we were dealing with weekly. Once they got housing, you hardly ever hear from them."

Some of the city's homeless are drifters, people passing through. They may come to the area looking for work or because they have family in the area. A few turns of bad luck can quickly result in someone needing the help of a homeless shelter.

"It doesn't take much for people to lose everything," he says.

Each spring Terry, a 20-year veteran of the department, meets with everyone in the shelter before the shelter closes for the season — a rite of spring that sends many of the men who had been living there back to living under bridges or in abandoned structures. Terry says he tries to let the men know about the full scope of services available, such as emergency housing and meal vouchers, the emergency funds available at the Minnesota Valley Action Council, the county's services, and services geared toward youth.

Some take his advice. But many do not.

Instead they'll end up living in places such as the remaining structure on the North Star Concrete site, which has had boards ripped off the windows so people could take refuge inside. Or under the bridges that cross the river's bike trail, where a former cubby hole of a site was still visible after its inhabitant (whose presence had frightened passing joggers) was asked to leave. Or the downtown mall.

Terry says his attitude toward the homeless is much different today than when he started. Twenty years ago, he'd be likely to be a little more impatient with them. Today, he says he's more understanding of their plight.

"I'd never even talked to the people who were living on the street," he says of his early days. "Now I'll go have lunch with them two days a week. Having a meal with them shows them a different side. It's an opportunity to have contact with police where its non-confrontational, where I can laugh with them, joke with them. I'm more effective in how I work with them because I know them."