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Rural homeless: Out of sight, out of hope?

HIBBING, MINN. — It’s easy to forget that poverty, mental illness and personal crisis leave people homeless in every corner of Minnesota — including here on the Iron Range — and those affected don’t always fit neatly into stereotypes.

HIBBING, MINN. — It’s easy to forget that poverty, mental illness and personal crisis leave people homeless in every corner of Minnesota — including here on the Iron Range — and those affected don’t always fit neatly into stereotypes.

“While most people think of homelessness as the stereotypical chronic alcoholic in an urban area, the reality is that half the homeless in Minnesota are children, and one-third of the homeless are in Greater Minnesota,” said Liz Kuoppala, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. Of those homeless children, Kuoppala said, many are dependent upon a single mother fleeing domestic violence.

Kuoppala, also an Eveleth city councilor, was busy recently, not just connecting homeless people across the state to services, but in guiding a tour of analysts from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office as they investigated the matter of rural homelessness here on the Iron Range two weeks ago. These officials met with public officials, service providers, but most importantly with homeless Iron Rangers in a quest to recommend the best way to improve current government practices.

“We heard from people who slept in tents, in abandoned houses, even at their job with no one knowing,” said Kuoppala.

A regional challenge
Indeed, according to Kuoppala, that’s the challenge of addressing homelessness in northern Minnesota. In large cities, the federal government identifies homelessness based on the number of people reporting to shelters. With no major overnight shelters in the region the federal government doesn’t have any way of knowing how many people really are homeless.

Part of that, Kuoppala said, is the culture of rural, working-class places like northern Minnesota.

“People here don’t think of themselves as homeless,” said Kuoppala. “They just think of themselves as down on their luck. Rural people are hearty, tough, and pride gets in the way of getting help. They’re more likely to hunker down in the woods or an abandoned school bus.”

And while this may be preferable to people lying destitute on the streets of our towns, the fact remains: Many homeless people struggle with medical, mental-health and transportation issues that prevent them from gaining employment and security, something they want and everyone else wants for them.

That’s why the recent federal GAO tour exploring rural homelessness is only part of the story. In the state’s staggering $1.2 billion budget deficit, the General Medical Assistance Care program — slashed to the core in Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposed budget — was restored in the Legislature only to be vetoed again by the governor. DFL lawmakers attempted an override that fell short. Then on Friday a deal between the governor and legislative leaders was reached to retain GAMC through May, at which time it will be scaled back.

The GMAC program is expensive, as any health care in the country tends to be. However, it’s sometimes the only program that covers medical and mental-health needs for people who want off the streets and into our economy, an action that has the dual benefit of being more cost-efficient and morally defensible. Cast a stone on the Iron Range and you just might hit a friend, family member or neighbor in just such a situation, a person most likely enduring his or her struggle quietly.

Fear of a return to homelessness
Kuoppala described the plight of one low-income woman who had spent a lifetime struggling with untreated mental illness and who finally received medication. The treatment has been helping her adjust to a new life of possibility, but she lives in dread of returning to homelessness and despair.

“She told us that if she knew that her treatment would just be taken away, she almost wishes she had never tried in the first place,” said Kuoppala. “Because now she can’t imagine returning to the life she once knew.”

Minnesota might be a cold place, but Minnesotans don’t have cold hearts. No excuse, particularly a political one, will suffice for failure to ensure that such people have dependable health coverage. Nor should we pretend that the rough landscape of northern Minnesota absolves us from knowing the struggles of our fellow people and helping them.

Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune, where a version of this piece was published. He also writes the MinnesotaBrown blog, and is the author of “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.