Story published: March 2020
More than 10,000 Minnesotans are homeless, a number that is a record-high for the state and a 10-percent increase since 2015. Make a phone call to any shelter in the state and the staff will anecdotally confirm that upward trend.
“We are full all the time,” said Jennifer Kuoppola, a case manager at Bill’s House, a shelter in Virginia, Minn. “Lately we’ve been turning away 12 households a day. It was at 60 households a month, and we’ve increased the turn-aways.”
Bill’s House has 12 beds and operates as a 30-day emergency shelter, though residents may have an option to stay up to 90 days. It’s also one of the only shelters on the Iron Range. That means homelessness in and around the small communities that dot northern Minnesota is mostly hidden, advocates say.
“When you are walking down the street, you have no idea if someone is homeless or not. You don’t see the encampments like you do in the cities. You don’t see panhandlers. You actually have to walk away from the street to go across the fence to get to the pit to see where people are camping out,” Kuoppola said.
A few blocks away from the shelter – a place the locals call the Rouchleau pit, which is an abandoned mine named for early miner Louis Rouchleau – an estimated 20 households are currently living along the perimeter, hidden from view, in tarp tents, Kuoppala noted.
For decades, Twin Cities PBS has covered stories about homelessness and affordable housing. Check out our collection “Under One Roof: Stories of Minnesota’s Housing Crisis.”
Tackling homelessness statewide is on the agenda for Governor Walz. Last December, he announced an emergency housing fund of $5 million, culled from private contributions. This year, his $2 billion bonding proposal includes money for more affordable housing, news welcomed by affordable housing and homeless advocates. Still, they caution that the problem can’t be solved by one-time funding mechanisms.
“Lifelines that people relied on – food stamps, social security – everything’s under attack. Without that safety net and no movement towards affordable housing, the worst is yet to come,” said Joel Kilgour, a volunteer with Loaves and Fishes, a faith-based housing community in Duluth.
In Duluth, Kilgour estimated that, on any given night, 200 people are sleeping outside, under bridges, in cars or in the woods. Single men make up the most need, advocates say. Yet 1,200 households in the greater Duluth area are waiting for any housing through the state’s coordinated entry program, a vetting system designed to swiftly assess and connect the most vulnerable with housing.
But state efforts are not always getting to the people who need it most. Lee Stuart, Chief Executive Officer of CHUM, a faith-based coalition in Duluth that operates the city’s largest homeless shelter and warming center, would like to work with state officials to find out how best to appropriate state dollars geographically.
“If you look where the money is allocated and where the lists are longest, they don’t match up,” she said.
But the local housing waiting list in Duluth has jumped 40 percent in just the last year, alone. One way CHUM has addressed homelessness is by opening up transitional apartments for 44 families in 2015. The intention was to provide stable housing for families to get on their feet, something beyond a traditional emergency shelter. For a quarter of the families, it’s been the longest they’ve lived in any one place. Stuart said they’ve had an 80-percent success rate in families moving on from the apartments to find equal or better housing on their own.
“It’s bigger than any of us can do, and it’s going to require federal investment and state investment, and we’re ready here with the blood sweat and tears on the street,” she said.
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