Homeless advocates: Pawlenty plan good for 2010, but what about now?

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January 19, 2004 // UPDATED 2:36 pm - April 24, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Governor's pledge to end chronic homelessness in six years overshadowed by this spring's possible loss of one in six shelter beds

While many advocates for the homeless lauded Gov. Tim Pawlenty's pledge earlier this month to end chronic homelessness by 2010, they are focused on budget cuts that could cut 16 percent of the city's shelter beds this spring.

About 130 of the city's roughly 800 shelter beds will lose funding April 15. Most of the beds are at Downtown facilities.

Downtown shelters filled up this fall, before the peak winter season. Hennepin County came through with funding to keep 130 overflow beds open during the coldest months, but the money runs out this spring.

Monica Nilsson, director of Simpson Housing Services, a 65-bed shelter for men and women in south Minneapolis, said advocates are looking to public officials and the philanthropic community to keep the beds open.

"While many will say people won't freeze to death in the spring, summer or fall, we believe people deserve to be inside year-round. People in the summer are not safe outside. They're not rested. They're not clean. They don't have access to advocacy and other resources," she said.

Shelter providers are spending the county money now to provide people shelter during the winter; they hope new government funds or private money will arrive in April. Advocates have faced similar funding problems in the past, with the overflow beds and funding often coming through just before the beds are set to close.

"To be looking at some of our established beds closing and then to try to use the money now to get people in for the winter -- it's a really difficult decision for us to make," she said.

The looming shortage comes as the city's shelter providers turn people away. Since 1999, providers have relied on more than 100 "overflow" beds for the city's homeless.

"Overflow" beds are mats spread out on the floor at shelters, in waiting areas or other large rooms. People sleep on the mats inches apart from one another. Other beds have linens and are in less-cramped quarters that often have storage spaces.

Downtown's Salvation Army Harbor Light Center, 1010 Currie Ave., and Secure Waiting, a Catholic Charities shelter at 1000 Currie Ave., have most of the overflow beds.

According to a 2002 report on homelessness in Minnesota prepared by the state Department of Children, Families and Learning, 6,912 people relied on shelters in a variety of programs throughout the state. Children make up nearly half (47 percent) of the homeless population.

A 2000 report by the St. Paul-based Wilder Research Center put the homeless population slightly higher: 8,600 people. According to the survey, about 1,400 homeless people lived on the streets compared with 7,121 who relied on shelters or transitional housing on the night of Oct. 26, 2000 (before the current economic slowdown started).

Pawlenty's plan would target $20 million in state bonding for 4,000 units of supportive housing for chronically homeless adults. The money would be used to refurbish existing units and build new ones. The housing initiative also would tap $90 million in new money from the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. Private developers involved in supportive housing projects would be eligible for $60 million in tax credits.

While Nilsson and many other community leaders are fixated on the current budget problems facing the city's homeless, she said the governor's plan is a step in the right direction.

"I am glad to see some bonding dollars are being proposed for housing because the answer is housing, not more shelters or emergency services," she said. "However, I'm concerned that this happens after dramatic cuts six months ago to programs for people experiencing homelessness."

Recent state cuts -- and cuts in state aid to counties, which administer social services -- have hit a broad spectrum of programs that assist low-income families and the homeless, such as the Emergency Services Program and Transitional Housing Program. Homeless youth, in particular, have been hit hard by the cuts and lost shelter beds.

Cuts for childcare and healthcare assistance, among other things, have thrown more poor onto the streets, advocates say.

Nilsson said advocates for the homeless also foresee problems for Pawlenty's housing proposal.

"Our number one problem is finding a site. Number two is the neighbors. Number three is the money," she said. "We are going to need to make sure that elected officials at the city, county and state level are supportive of having supportive housing in their communities and that we don't create a doughnut in Minnesota -- where we have all of the supportive housing in Minneapolis and St. Paul and then the rings of suburbs have people of means."

Jonathan Farmer, executive director of the Minnesota Supportive Housing Consortium, said the lion's share of the state's supportive housing facilities are located in Minneapolis. Downtown has a large concentration, particularly in the Elliot Park neighborhood in its southeast corner.

"Clearly, we give our unqualified support to the administration's homeless initiative as a bold first step in ending homelessness for all Minnesotans," he said. "The test here for our administration, for our faith community leaders, business leaders and citizens is to assure this focus on long-term homelessness doesn't detract from our ability to build partnerships to address the needs of other people experiencing poverty or situational homelessness."

Across the state, there are 1,500 units of supportive housing with another 1,500 in the pipeline. Farmer said supportive housing provides people with more than just shelter.

"It's an effort to create long-term, deeply affordable housing resources in the community that have a clear and intentional link to the kinds of support services that people who experience homelessness need. Everything from life skills to mental health care to general health to chemical health services, as well as assistance in finding employment and childcare," he said.

Farmer serves on the Community Advisory Board on Homelessness, a joint Hennepin County and city task force that meets monthly Downtown. The advisory board has been tackling many topics, from addressing the bed shortage to talking about ways to decriminalize homelessness.

"Clearly, at the top of the list is to make sure we have shelter capacity so people aren't sleeping outside," he said.