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It’s important to hear and learn from youth experiencing homelessness in the Twin Cities

Thanks to Youthprise, we were able to interview 32 of the thousands of these youngsters in an attempt to humanize their experiences, and hopefully, encourage effective action.

A homeless camp along Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis, shown in 2018.
A homeless camp along Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis, shown in 2018.
MinnPost file photo by Jessica Lee

The large numbers and huge impact of Minnesota youth experiencing homelessness deserves much greater attention. Thanks to Youthprise, we were able to interview 32 of the thousands of these youngsters in an attempt to humanize their experiences, and hopefully, encourage effective action. We shared this information with the 2021 Minnesota Legislature, which responded by allocating $20 million to help deal with this.  It’s now vital that local, county and state agencies use these recommendations to have the greatest possible impact. This will require more emphasis on permanent, truly affordable housing.

The first author’s (Khalique) life experience helps illustrate these issues.  Born in Chicago, Khalique’s family moved to the Twin Cities when he was very young because they heard it was better for Blacks here. 

They found that it wasn’t. 

The family’s meager resources were soon exhausted by hotel bills and by landlords who demanded rental application fees even when they apparently already had a renter identified. Resources exhausted, the family was forced to sleep in their car until they were able to find a shelter, but it was only for his mother and siblings; his father wasn’t allowed to stay with them because all of the shelters were for single parents; that is, mothers and their children only. Even though a shelter provided them with protection from the environment, the experience was dehumanizing. 

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In 2019, Minnesota Department of Education found that, based on district and charter reports, more than 8,000 children and youth were homeless, using a single day’s measure (the number over a year probably is two to three times higher.)  Black and Native American youth are at a disproportionately high risk of homelessness.

Poor education helps produce homelessness. More than half of the survey’s respondents (10 out of 16) who had a high school degree or equivalent obtained it through the GED process. Moving around the Twin Cities, Khalique found that the quality of schools varied markedly, even within the same district. Schools with a predominantly white student population were always better than the others, even if schools serving large percentages of students with low-income students had more money per pupil. For example, his final school offered virtually no college-level-credit courses. His experience, and that of his family, reflect the structural racism that’s regional and national.  

To inform our policy change advocacy, we started collecting in-person video interviews of homeless high school students in 2019.  Because the COVID-19 pandemic soon made this impossible, we collected narratives with online and paper surveys between June and December 2020. All responses were voluntary and anonymous.

Results

Most respondents were male. Approximately one-third were Black. About half were a combination of multiple or other races, including American Indian and Asian. Four (13%) were white. Half of respondents first experienced homelessness before the age of 18. Most (3/4) of the respondents had experienced homelessness for a year or more.

We identified three major causes of homelessness: Social and family issues, financial instability, and poor health. For example, some respondents described the causes of  their homelessness as sexual abuse (“My adoptive dad was sexually inappropriate with me and very religiously abusive and got full custody of me in the divorce, so I left.”), physical violence or because they had “run with the wrong crowd.” “…[no] financial stability”, “because they had been convicted of a felony” or “…[no] resources for single Black men.”  

We identified seven consequences of homelessness: hungry and cold (“Not having enough clothes or food or anywhere to sleep”), lack of safety (“Understanding your [sic] in this position alone. All year long. No one to offer help.”), little agency or ownership (“Not having a safe place that’s yours”), no social support (“Nobody cares”), lack of emotional stability (“Because I could be in one house doing schoolwork and then be homeless tomorrow, I could be going through a lot of different emotions”), lack of comfort (“Homelessness is to not have a stable place of peace”), and lack of certainty (“There is no structure on your daily living”). 

The respondents identified several actions that policymakers could take to reduce the number of children and  youth experiencing homelessness: “Provide permanent housing options, not just temporary shelter” (many youth found shelters to be dangerous);  “bring them to a center, not jail”; “teach how to find help”; “[give] a second chance”; “teach housing knowledge”; “open youth programs to help with jobs and schooling”; “more permanent affordable housing for teens who are pregnant or teen parents.”

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The 2021 Minnesota Legislature welcomed this information. Unfortunately, the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless recently rejected our proposal to share results at its annual conference.  While it’s not either/or, our findings encourage more resources to be devoted to permanent affordable housing, rather than temporary shelter. Another need is communities using the energy, insight and passion and creativity of youth. An example is creation of the collaborative community effort that brought to life Midway Peace Park (St. Paul), which Khalique and other Gordon Parks High school students participated in. Supporting youth leadership will allow for effective support of their pain points.

To have the greatest possible long-term impact, state funds must be spent wisely and well.

Khalique Rogers, Meghan JaKa and Thomas E. Kottke

Khalique Rogers, Meghan JaKa and Thomas E. Kottke
Khalique Rogers, who formerly experienced homelessness in Minnesota, is a graduate of St. Paul College, a student at the University of Minnesota and director of  Good Riddance, LLC, Minneapolis. Meghan JaKa, Ph.D., and Thomas E. Kottke M.D., MSPH, are affiliated with HealthPartners Institute, Minneapolis.

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