Housing researchers just reported the state of Minnesota has a bigger homeless problem than they’ve ever seen. And the state’s lack of affordable housing and emergency shelters is hitting one age demographic particularly hard: Residents over the age of 55.
According to Wilder Research — which conducts counts of people sleeping in vehicles, shelters, tent encampments, outside or on trains every three years — the number of homeless seniors in Minnesota is rising at a rate faster than any other age group.
Researchers released Minnesota’s newest count this week, showing an increase of about 25 percent among homeless seniors since 2015, though the group represents just 10 percent of the state’s homeless population.
The core reasons for Minnesota’s rising number of homeless seniors — which totaled 1,054 people in the recent count — are the same as those perpetuating housing disparities nationwide: low apartment vacancy rates, increasing rents and the rate at which public and private developers build affordable housing. “We are losing affordable housing faster than we can build it, in terms of the bonding bills and the work that’s being done,” Steve Horsfield, executive director of Simpson Housing. “The increase (in homeless people overall) directly correlates to an increase in the number of people who are not sheltered.”
Efforts to help older homeless people are often made more challenging by a complex range of health problems, research shows. Between substance-abuse issues, chronic diseases and mental-health illnesses, recent studies have found that people over the age of 55 without permanent homes have needs similar to people with homes who are 10 to 20 years older.
There are also severe racial disparities among homeless seniors across Minnesota. Even though only about two percent of Minnesota’s seniors are black, they made up one-third of the state’s homeless adults age 55 and older, according to a 2015 Wilder Research study. Native Americans, meanwhile, account for 7 percent of all homeless older adults, even though they make up less than one percent of the state’s senior population.
The latest Wilder Research report — the result of volunteers counting the state’s homeless people on Oct. 25 — is preliminary and does not include respondents’ racial identification. Senta Leff, the executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, said project leaders will release specific details from the survey in coming months.
Big rise in number of people sleeping outside, too
The latest increase in Minnesota’s homeless seniors continues a trend that spans years. Since 2009, the number of people over the age of 55 sleeping in tents, cars, shelters or other places has doubled, according to the data provided by Wilder Research. Among counties, Hennepin County tallied the most homeless seniors: 500 — compared to fewer than 300 nine years prior. “People should be alarmed and activated,” Leff said. “Housing is a basic form of infrastructure — it’s a necessary ingredient for healthcare, for local economies.”
Simpson Housing’s Horsfield said he’s noticed increased demand for help — ranging from emergency shelter to social services — among seniors in recent years. “We knew that was going to be the case. We’ve got people aging. Baby boomers suffered when the economy collapsed,” he said. “Folks who are feeling the benefits of the (improving) economy and those who are not — that disparity continues to grow.”
The Wilder report found other notable trends among Minnesota’s homeless population. Among them: that the number of people sleeping under bridges, alongside roads or in vehicles — anywhere outside — has more than doubled since 2015. That’s because the state’s homeless shelters are often at capacity. In addition, said Leff, the majority of counties throughout Minnesota do not offer any type of fixed-site emergency spots, leaving hundreds of people with no place to go. “There’s a dangerous spike among the people who can’t even get into a cot on the floor,” she said.
The rise in the number of people sleeping outdoors became a high-profile issue in Minneapolis last year, when a narrow strip of land along Hiawatha Avenue eventually became home to some 300 people living in tents.
In response to the Hiawatha encampment, tribal and city leaders built a temporary navigation center near the camp for its residents to live over the winter, while social-service agencies try to find them permanent housing. Some 100 people remain there now, Horsfield said. The goal is to find all of them homes before the center’s closure on May 31.
The amount of people who used emergency shelters in both Greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities metro grew by about one-third since 2009, the Wilder data show.
Leff and and other housing-rights activists are now asking legislators for $15 million per biennium in state dollars to boost Minnesota’s emergency services program, which funds services for homeless people. They are also asking for an increase in the Minnesota Family Investment Program, which provides cash assistance to families and she said has remained at the same funding level since 1986.
“Shelters are overburdened,” she said. “Basic safety-net services have stayed exactly where they are three decades ago, and the cost of housing is significantly higher.”
As part of his budget, Gov. Tim Walz has proposed spending $284 million for affordable housing. The governor also promised this week that the state will eliminate homelessness for military veterans by the end of this year, which would make Minnesota the fourth state to do so.
Numbers certainly higher
Overall, Wilder Research found 10,233 homeless people in Minnesota, the highest number since the foundation began counting nearly three decades ago.
Because many homeless people stay in hard-to-reach places or avoid the project all together, however, the Wilder numbers offer a broad snapshot of the state’s homeless population. Housing-rights activists say the true number of homeless people in Minnesota is surely higher.
One of those activists is Jordan May, who runs the Red Lake Nation homeless shelter in north-central Minnesota — a region where the homeless population has grown by about 50 percent since 2009, according to the Wilder data. Overall, homelessness in Greater Minnesota has increased by roughly 7 percent over nine years, compared to an increase of about 5 percent in the seven-county metro region.
May has run the shelter since 2009, he said, offering seven rooms and 18 beds for homeless people on a temporary basis. He said he is applying for grants to expand its level of services, including onsite treatment for substance abuse, to meet the area’s growing demand.
“In certain areas (like the reservation), there’s just not enough employment. There are certain people with a criminal history and some people are fighting addiction — that’s been a part of the increase … or there are different barriers to transportation,” he said. “There’s just not enough housing out there.”