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Is Minnesota fostering youth homelessness? Other states’ strategies could help change trends

Two recent headlines — “Wilder Research survey finds ‘troubling, but not surprising,’ jump in the number of Minnesota’s homeless” and “Teenage homelessness on the rise” — have awakened us.

Two recent headlines — “Wilder Research survey finds ‘troubling, but not surprising,’ jump in the number of Minnesota’s homeless” and “Teenage homelessness on the rise” — have awakened us. Wilder Research’s study notes a dramatic 39 percent increase in the number of unaccompanied homeless youth in Minnesota. The story on teenagers tells us that homeless teens can be found all over the state.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said we can end chronic homelessness, and Hennepin and Ramsey Counties have put together “Heading Home” strategies to end homelessness. Why, then, these disturbing results — and what can we do about it?

One area that calls for our action is youth who age out of foster care. Nationally, 29,500 youth age out of care each year; KidsCount puts the number at 600-800 for Minnesota. The Wilder count found 1,207 youth on their own last October, and found 64 percent of these had a history of out-of-home placement such as foster care and detention centers.

One action the state can take is extending placement until the age of 21. Current practice places a youth in care until 18 years. Legislation passed will permit states to be reimbursed by Title IV-E (Social Security) for placement until the age of 21.

Three more years in foster care lowers homeless rate
A recently released Midwest Study by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago and the School of Social Work at the University of Washington found that when comparing youth in Illinois, who are placed until 21, with youth from two Midwest states that do not, Illinois youth are 2.7 times less likely to be homeless. Allowing youth to remain in foster care three additional years reduces homelessness by continuing housing and giving the youth more time to prepare for the transition to adulthood.

Affordable housing is key to ending homelessness. In Ramsey County, the Department of Human Services (RCHS), partnering with the St. Paul Public Housing Authority, is able to offer 25 vouchers for 18 months so these youth pay a third of their income on housing. Jenny Buskirk, a RCHS youth coordinator, says this is a huge help to the youth, but many more vouchers are needed. To further support the youth, RCHS connects learning life skills and case management to the housing.

A visit to a place like Rezek House (founded and operated by Lutheran Social Services) demonstrates that housing connected to positive youth development leads to a brighter future for the youth. Up to two years of housing is connected to developing life skills, and the staff is very caring and inspirational.

Reward system is worth exploring
One other idea that the state might explore through some demonstration projects is whether some kind of reward system for foster youth might lead to more self-sufficiency. Experiments around the country indicate that rewarding youth directly for accomplishment in schools has led to improvement in student achievement.

We hope the Wilder Survey and Midwest Report will stimulate discussion this election year. Leading youth to self-sufficiency and success is about our future.

Wouldn’t it make us all smile to see a decrease in the number of homeless youth in the next Wilder study? Maybe the headline will read, “Numbers of homeless drop,” or even better, “No homeless youth.”

Jim Scheibel is the former mayor of St. Paul and chaired the Tasks Force on Hunger and Homelessness for the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He was joined in writing the piece by three of his classmates at the Humphrey Institute: Susan Lange, Mitter Sain, and Amy Stotzheim.