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Minnesota's economy bouncing back, but not for low-income and homeless residents

MN's economy bouncing back, but not for low-income and homeless residents
MinnPost file photo by Jana Freiband
The number of meals served at Dorothy Day is up 3 percent this fiscal year compared with 2012.

Government statistics suggest Minnesota’s economy is bouncing back, but agencies that serve the poor in the metro area are not feeling optimistic yet.

All summer, Gerry Lauer, director of Catholic Charities’ Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul, thought vacancies at its shelter meant the number of homeless people in the city had dwindled.

As the nights grew colder over the past few days, though, he once again had to turn people away because all 250 overnight spots were occupied.

He’s seeing more senior citizens, women and people with physical and mental disabilities. “We are the last resort for folks,” Lauer says. “They come from situations they never thought they’d find themselves in.”

The number of meals served at Dorothy Day is up 3 percent this fiscal year compared with 2012.

Recent headlines are packed with good news.

New census numbers on poverty

The U.S. Census Bureau said this week that the state’s poverty rate fell from 11.9 percent in 2011 to 11.4 percent in 2012, meaning 23,000 fewer people were living in poverty. Texas was the only other state where poverty declined.

The U.S. Commerce Department said this month that the Twin Cities economy grew at its fastest pace in almost a decade in 2012, driven by a 12 percent increase in home sales.

Minnesota’s August unemployment rate was released Thursday: 5.1 percent, down slightly from 5.2 percent in July. The national rate is 7.3 percent.

Those statistics have not translated into tangible improvement in the lives of the area’s low-income and homeless residents, according to organizations that provide food, shelter and other assistance.

“We’ve been around for 40 years and we’ve never seen the numbers that we’ve been seeing,” says Nathan Rust, food manager at the Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People (VEAP) food shelf in Bloomington.

The group serves about 8,000 residents of Bloomington, Richfield, Edina and south Minneapolis a month, up 8 percent in the first six months of this year from the same period in 2012.

“Nearly half the people we serve are working,” Rust says. About 45 percent of its clients are children and the number of senior citizens climbs every year.

Salvation Army spokeswoman Annette Bauer says loosening in the rental market has made it a little easier to find housing, but adds, “We have not seen a great downturn in people asking for help.”

Overnight stays are one measure of need, she says: There were 463,000 in 2012, an increase from 350,000 in 2011.

Baby Boomers in shelters

The Salvation Army’s shelters and eight metro food shelves still see new clients, Bauer says. “A new dimension is the number of Baby Boomers in shelters — people who are 55 or 60 and are finding themselves in shelters without having prolonged mental illness or drug addiction.”

Sara Sternberger is executive director of Bridging, a nonprofit group that has distributed donated furniture and household goods to low-income people since 1987. It has locations in Roseville and Bloomington.

The positive data is great, she says, but “I don’t really think in terms of our clients it’s going to change what we do.”

About 87 percent of people referred to Bridging have annual incomes of $15,000 or less, she explains. It serves about 4,000 families each year.

It’s the same story at the Emergency Food Shelf Network, which is based in New Hope and distributes food to more than 230 metro area food shelves and hunger relief groups.

“Maybe for someone like you and me our 401(k) has bounced back,” says marketing director Peg McQuillan, “but for a lot of the working poor and the poor” not much has changed.

The network sensed “murmurs of recovery” a couple years ago, but there’s “certainly no dip” in demand this year, she says.

There is some good news: The Emergency Food Shelf Network and other groups say that despite the long economic slowdown, donations are still coming in. The network will meet its fundraising goal this year.

“We’ve had fewer people giving,” says the Salvation Army’s Bauer. “However, they’re giving at higher levels.”

Sternberger says Bridging has experienced a drop in the number of individual donations. But hotels that postponed upgrades during the worst of the recession feel confident enough about the economy now that they’re replacing — and donating — furniture again.

Lauer says it’s vital for the community to remain engaged and work toward “a long-term answer” to the problems of hunger and homelessness.

Changes in policies

Changes in government policies and priorities are part of that answer, advocates agree.

Nancy Maeker, executive director of A Minnesota Without Poverty, which hopes to ensure that every Minnesotan has adequate resources by 2020, says a deeper look at poverty statistics reveals entrenched problems: higher poverty rates and income inequality for African-American and American Indians.

“The most pressing policy issue is raising the minimum wage” to $9.50 by 2015, Maeker says.

Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota, is focused on passage of the federal Farm Bill, which is hung up amid partisan bickering in Congress.

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