The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 10, 2013

Homelessness event focuses on solutions

Many suggestions tied to streamlining help

By Robb Murray

---- — MANKATO — When asked to come up with a list of barriers to ending homelessness in Mankato, there was no shortage of answers from this group.

Low incomes, lack of knowledge of homelessness in the community, lack of government subsidies to help the homeless, lack of suitable dwellings, the housing that is available isn't affordable, many homeless people are suffering from mental illness, getting help is very complicated, medical expenses get in the way of paying rent, public prejudice, lack of personal motivation.

Navigating the world of homelessness can be tricky. But that's where events such as the Mankato Area Housing and Community Dialogue, held Thursday at Verizon Wireless Center in Mankato, can be helpful. The event brought together social workers, community leaders and representatives from various agencies that deal with housing. The discussion specific to homelessness was one of many break-out sessions throughout the day.

The event featured Mary Tingerthal, commissioner of Minnesota Housing. In addition to homelessness, sessions included discussions of housing redevelopment, workforce housing, single-family rehab and other topics.

But back to the homelessness discussion. Those solutions the group was looking for did come. And many of them sounded like this one:

“There are so many requirements laid down by so many agencies," Mankato psychologist George Komaridis said. "The solution might be to get some of those agencies to back down on some of those requirements.”

His comment sparked a series of similar comments and other suggestions for making it easier for people who are stuck in homelessness to get help getting help, and to get help getting out.

Streamline the process, one person said, and make it so that people don't have to go to a dozen agencies to get the services they need. Take decision-making power away from bureaucrats in Washington — or St. Paul for that matter — and give it back to the local social workers who know the homeless people in their community and are better equipped to get them the help they need. Model homeless outreach after other programs with proven track records for making things better for the clients they serve, such as drug court.

And this: "We need more shelter space," one participant said. "When you're living under a bridge or in your car, you need a place to go."

Just how many people in the Mankato area are homeless is a question that's tough to get a firm grasp on. The federal Housing and Urban Development agency mandates all communities getting HUD funds to count the homeless in January. By that count, the Mankato area last January counted 16 homeless families and 30 individuals. But January is a tough month to get an accurate count in a cold-weather state such as Minnesota.

The Minnesota Valley Action Council keeps track of how many people come to them for help, as well for emergency housing assistance. Between June 2011 and July 2013, the nonprofit screened about 2,500 people across a nine-county area. Of those, 641 were enrolled in some kind of program to get them help.

Changes may be coming to the way the homeless are served. The state is hoping to move an approach called coordinated assessment, where one agency handles all intake, determines which services the person qualifies for and sends them directly to the right place.

The Minnesota Valley Action Council's Kate Hengy-Gretz said this will dramatically improve the quality of services delivered to homeless Minnesotans. Full buy-in and integration could still be four or five years away, and it won't bring any more dollars to the state or local agencies. But in the end it could save agencies money by cutting down on unnecessary work in dealing with cases that are inappropriate for a particular agency's specialty.

Hengy-Gretz said she felt like the mood and attendees at the event signaled a shift in how people view housing struggles and homelessness.

"Normally when I get together with people to talk about homelessness, it's all social service workers," she said. "But today, there's bankers, real estate people and others, and it brings a whole different perspective."