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A painful choice for homeless youth: a place to live or an education

Rep. Keith Ellison, left, met Thursday with students who live at St. Barnabas low-income apartments. The three are displaying a mock copy of a bill Ellison supports to fix a housing rule that hinders the residents' education.
MinnPost photo by Marisa Helms
Rep. Keith Ellison, left, met Thursday with students who live at St. Barnabas low-income apartments. The three are displaying a mock copy of a bill Ellison supports to fix a housing rule that hinders the residents’ education.

Tall and thin, Ebonii Mantilla’s got one of those barbell piercings in her lower lip, and another one crossing her left eyebrow. On her neck is a tattoo with the name of her dead brother.

She’s kind of intimidating.

But 20-year-old Mantilla is also a warm, ambitious young woman, her toughness cultivated by living through some serious hell.

Her brother committed suicide five years ago. Shortly after, she became homeless.

“Me and my mother’s relationship was rocky, and we decided for the both of us it would be best if I left the household,” Mantilla says.

Mantilla struggled for a few years and couldn’t finish high school.

“I needed help,” says Mantilla. “I was couch-hopping, staying with cousins and relatives, everybody besides my mother.”

Last May, Mantilla moved into the Archdale Apartments, one of two housing projects for homeless youth (ages 16 to 25) created by the local nonprofit Aeon.

Mantilla says she gets a lot of support at Archdale. She completed her GED, and in January she plans to start her college career studying psychology at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

Excited but frustrated
Mantilla is excited about school. But, she’s also frustrated because living in low-income housing is dictating how quickly she can get her degree at MCTC.

Like most low-income housing, Archdale is financed with money through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program. But, the program’s “Student Rule” prohibits full-time students from qualifying as tenants.

So, Mantilla, and hundreds of formerly homeless students like her, can only enroll in school half-time. If she goes to school full time, Mantilla risks losing her home, the only place she really feels safe.

“I have no choice,” says Mantilla. “I have to go to school part time. But that means I have to stay in school longer than I mean to because I can only take a certain amount of classes.”

Congress created the Student Rule after it set up the program in 1986 because it didn’t want scarce resources for low-income housing to be used by colleges as student dormitories.

“That made sense, but there’s an unintended consequence,” says Chip Halbach of the Minnesota Housing Partnership.

Halbach says having to go to school part time means students can lose financial aid or scholarship money. The slow pace can also keep the students from graduating and moving on to their own apartments, thereby tying up affordable housing units.

The rule not only affects college students.

Law also affects K-12 students
Early last year, the Internal Revenue Service (who administers the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program) clarified that the rule also applies to K-12 students.

“This is so inane and represents such a stark moral dilemma for our staff,” says Elizabeth Hinz, the Minneapolis School District’s liaison for homeless and highly mobile students.

Hinz says on any given day, about 1,200 to 1,500 Minneapolis children and youth are on the street or couch-hopping.

Hinz says the rule means homeless students considering, or already living in, low-income housing are required to submit forms to the government certifying they are attending school part-time.

“In many instances, they are in school full time and doing well,” says Hinz. “So we could not sign the form, and then they lost their housing.”

About 65 formerly homeless youth live in Aeon’s Archdale or St. Barnabas low-income apartments in downtown Minneapolis, and nearly every one of them is affected by this rule.

Their plight got the attention of 5th District Rep. Keith Ellison, who came to St. Barnabas Thursday to hear the personal stories of about a dozen residents. Many of these teens and young adults are struggling with mental illness and come from abusive homes. Several of them made it clear that education means hope and a way forward.

Ellison told the students he supports them and will introduce a bill to create an exemption in the Student Rule for formerly homeless students. If it passes, the exemption could potentially affect  tens of thousands of youth nationwide.

“We’ve got to stay in tight communication,” Ellison told them. “We’ve got to get some letters going supporting the legislation. Let’s change this law.”

Ellison, who is a member of the House Financial Services Committee, says he’ll introduce the bill when Congress begins its new session Jan. 6. He plans on attaching it to the $850 billion economic stimulus package proposed by President-elect Barack Obama.

“We’re just going to push it and push it and hope for some luck,” Ellison said as he was leaving.

The Minneapolis congressman says he thinks his bill will find wide support from Democrats and Republicans.

“People talk about low-income youth, homeless folks, and they’re usually talking about juvenile court,” says Ellison. “And these people are saying, ‘Hey, we want to go to college!’ We’ve got to kick the doors open for them.”

Marisa Helms writes about politics, east metro issues and other topics. She can be reached at mhelms [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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