This column originally appeared in several APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers.
Hearing and helping Minnesota’s homeless youth and families
We have to do better with the thousands of young Minnesotans like Isis Watford. Through no fault of her own, she spent four years being homeless. Recently, at age 20, Watford found a place to live. But there are still thousands of homeless youth in rural, suburban and urban Minnesota communities.
Watford told me that when she was 16 her family was evicted from their home. She recalled: “They didn’t let us take our belongings. We were left empty-handed and had to start over.” Though she now has a permanent place to stay, is working and is studying for her high school diploma, her mother and younger siblings remain homeless.
Isis Watford, courtesy of High School for Recording Arts
Sometimes adults make mistakes. I’ve made plenty. But did the family deserve to be homeless? Of course not.
Monica Nilsson has worked with homeless Minnesota families and youth in various ways for 25 years. Gov. Tim Walz recently asked her to help him and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan meet with some homeless families, which she did.
Nilsson told me that homeless “youth and families may be invisible, because they’re not holding a piece of cardboard on the side of the road. But they’re there.” She says “over 60 of 87 counties in Minnesota don’t have a fixed site to shelter homeless people.”
A national report by the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, found that the number of homeless youth attending Minnesota public schools grew from about 15,200 in the 2014-15 school year to 17,750 in 2016-17. (More information here: http://bit.ly/2y8RVR7.)
One study of Minnesota homeless youth found “Students in the homeless and highly mobile group had lower grade point averages and test scores than did those in the low-income and general population groups.” This and other studies found homeless youngsters face many challenges. (The research is here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19338695.)
About one-third of Minnesota homeless youth live in greater Minnesota, about one-third live in Twin Cities suburbs, and about one-third live in or near Minneapolis and St. Paul. Even the state’s most affluent communities have homeless youngsters: Minnesota Department of Education’s website shows, as of the official count date in October 2018, Wayzata Public Schools reported it had 39 homeless students, Minnetonka Public Schools reported 28 and Edina said it had eight.
Here’s the homeless count from other Minnesota school districts and chartered public schools:
Anoka-Hennepin School District: 38; Northwest Passage High School: 12; Paladin Career and Technical High School: 58
Bloomington Public Schools: 145
Burnsville-Eagan-Savage District 191: 92
Caledonia Area Public Schools ISD 299: 10
Cambridge-Isanti Schools: 34
Columbia Heights Public Schools: 57
Eden Prairie Schools: 16
Independent School District 728 (Elk River, Rogers, Otsego and Zimmerman): 26
Farmington Area Public Schools: 26
Forest Lake Area Schools: 42
Fridley Public Schools: 52
Hopkins Public Schools: 47
Lakeville Public Schools: 26
Little Falls Community Schools, 9; Long Prairie/Grey Eagle Public Schools 68; Royalton Public Schools: 10
Milaca Public Schools: 18
Monticello Public School District: 17
North Branch Area Public Schools: 16
Osseo Area Schools: 254
Princeton Public Schools: 80
Richfield Public Schools: 66
Rochester Public Schools: 181
District 196 Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools: 78
St. Louis Park Public Schools: 75
Stillwater Area Public Schools: 22
Waconia Public Schools: 6
Wilder Foundation researchers interviewed more than 4,000 homeless Minnesotans on Oct. 25, 2018. They acknowledged that the 4,000 people are far fewer than the actual number of homeless Minnesotans. Wilder found:
— “Nearly one-third of homeless adults are employed.
— “Availability of affordable housing is a critical issue.
— “African Americans, American Indians, and youth who identify as LGBTQ are particularly over-represented among the homeless.”
Wilder’s one page summary is here: http://bit.ly/2Ye6gWZ.
With encouragement from a growing group of Minnesotans, the 2019 Minnesota Legislature wisely increased support for homeless people. Tom Balsley, team supervisor, Office of Economic Opportunity, Minnesota Department of Human Service, told me that the 2019 Legislature gave DHS about $4.7 million to help people who are homeless. He explained that DHS has “set aside $300,000” to develop a plan for reducing homelessness. He also reported that DHS is “connecting with key partners, including the Office to Prevent and End Homelessness, the Unsheltered Design Team, and the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, to identify potential opportunities for the strategic utilization of these funds to respond to unsheltered homelessness.”
I hope DHS also asks Nilsson and currently and formerly homeless people like Watford to help develop the plan. They’ll help explain what’s needed. They can help remind people what it’s like to have to start over.
Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, firstname.lastname@example.org.