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Programs to combat homelessness work, it’s the lack of funding that doesn’t

The problem isn’t that programs are failing; it’s that they are underfunded and don’t meet the scale of the challenges that exist in Minnesota.

An image of the Franklin/Hiawatha Encampment in Minneapolis in 2018.
An image of the Franklin/Hiawatha Encampment in Minneapolis in 2018.
MinnPost file photo by Jim Walsh

The article, “Housing advocates want lawmakers to restart and replenish Minnesota’s halted rental assistance program. That’s gonna be a tough sell” called attention to the need to fund programs that address the homelessness crisis here in Minnesota. Sen. Rich Draheim (R-Madison Lake) questioned the effectiveness of existing housing stability programs saying, “What are we doing with the hundreds of millions in housing stability programs that we already have? That means our existing programs are failing. We need to unpack those. Why aren’t the existing programs working?” The problem isn’t that programs are failing; it’s that they are underfunded and don’t meet the scale of the challenges that exist in Minnesota.

The Emergency Services Program (ESP), which is the best and most flexible source of funding to provide services to people experiencing homelessness, is a prime example of this gross underfunding. Since its creation in 1997, the Emergency Services Program has only received moderate increases and never at the scale to meet the need. In 2014, $844,000 per year was allocated to address homelessness for the entire state. Through our advocacy in 2021, a funding boost of $12 million dollars was approved per two-year period. With this increased funding, Minnesota only allocates $137 per child, youth, adult or senior experiencing homelessness for shelter and services per year. Knowing that 50,000 Minnesotans experience homelessness in a given year, we are calling on the legislature to approve $95 million so homeless service providers can hire the staff and provide the services needed to support individuals and families on their journey to find a home. The pandemic relief dollars that have provided a financial lifeline to organizations across the state are exhausted; homeless service providers are now facing a funding cliff that will drastically impact thousands of individuals and families seeking shelter and support. 

The second challenge is a lack of shelter spaces so children, youth, adults and seniors have safety and dignity as they seek a permanent home. With 20,000 individuals experiencing homelessness on any given night, 80 of Minnesota’s 87 counties lack enough shelter to meet this need. This is due, in part, to a lack of state investment in shelter infrastructure. Recently, the Department of Human Services received $15 million in shelter capital funding to prevent the spread of infectious diseases; this is the first time Minnesota has developed a program to distribute funding to support capital needs of shelters. The Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless completed a detailed Shelter Capital Needs Assessment and identified $114 million in capital requests to preserve the shelters we have and to expand the number of shelter beds that so many communities are hoping to create. This investment would preserve or create 50 shelter projects; more than half of the projects in Greater Minnesota. Fully funding these projects is crucial if we are going to end unsheltered homelessness.

Julie Jeppson, executive director of Stepping Stone Emergency Housing told the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, “These organizations and service providers are walking alongside clients as they make great strides in their journey to find a home. The programs themselves are successful, and the funding made available to these programs makes a difference – but these funds can only help a finite number of people. As the amount of funding made available remains the same, the number of people experiencing homelessness is increasing, creating the perception that communities and organizations are less impactful. In reality, we remain incredibly impactful, saving lives through shelter. The problem is that there are many more lives to save than ever before.”

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In questioning the effectiveness of these existing programs, Senator Draheim spotlighted one of the most important issues we face in addressing homelessness: that the funding simply doesn’t match the need. Until we have enough homes for everyone, funding for shelter and services that provide safety, dignity, and support for children, families, and seniors experiencing homelessness is essential.

Mayor Emily Larson of Duluth told the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, “Investing in housing is investing in our future. If you feel it’s important for your children and family to have a place to call home, don’t you think that’s something other children and families could benefit from as well? Communities are just plain better when every single resident has access to safe and affordable housing. That’s how sharing a community and city and state works.” 

Targeting the state’s resources to address homelessness and preserve/create homes should be a top priority for lawmakers this legislative session. Minnesota has fallen behind in its goal to create 300,000 new homes by 2030. The state has the opportunity to meet this challenge and provide the funding and resources that will allow local providers to find creative, flexible solutions that fully address homelessness and housing instability. 

Shelter saves lives and housing ends homelessness. There is no excuse for children, youth, families, and seniors to be homeless with a $9 billion surplus.

Rhonda Otteson is executive director for the MN Coalition for the Homeless, Julie Jeppson is the executive director for Stepping Stone Emergency Housing (Anoka) and Mayor Emily Larson is the mayor of Duluth.