by Greg Owen and Michelle Decker Gerrard, Wilder Research Homeless Study directors
In 2012, Wilder Research's triennial homeless study counted 10,214 homeless adults, youth, and children—up 6 percent from 2009, but, fortunately significantly less than the 25 percent jump observed from 2006 to 2009. Unfortunately, this number underrepresents the total homeless population, since many homeless people outside the shelter system are not found on the night of the study.
On any given night in Minnesota, the total number of homeless people in Minnesota is estimated at over 14,000 people, and over the course of a year nearly 40,000 people.
A new comprehensive report based on the 2012 study has just been released. Wilder Researcher Homeless Study Directors Greg Owen and Michelle Decker Gerrard share 5 key reasons people are homeless in Minnesota:
1. The recession had a big impact.
Prior to the recession that began in 2007, we were beginning to see measurable declines in the numbers of children and families experiencing homelessness. But the recession appears to have a long tail, and those who are living at the margins are always among the last to recover.
In the year 2000, when the U.S. economy was at a high point, nearly a quarter of all adults who were homeless in our state had full-time jobs. The 2012 survey shows us that only 8 percent of those who are homeless today have full-time jobs. The median length of time since unemployed homeless adults last worked is nearly two years; this is an increase from 16 months in 2009.
Another indication of the impact of the recession is the increase in the use of emergency shelters, which was up 27 percent, and the fact that the largest increase in the number of people who were homeless was among children and older adults. Homelessness among two-parent homeless families grew by 22 percent from 2009 to 2012.
2. There is not enough affordable housing.
Nearly half of homeless adults lost their housing because they could not afford the rent or mortgage and/or they lost a job or work hours. At the time of the study, "fair market rent" was $745 per month for a one-bedroom apartment in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, and averaged $531 per month in greater Minnesota. The median monthly income of homeless adults is $381 in the Twin Cities and $403 in greater Minnesota, leaving a large affordability gap.
About 4 of 10 homeless adults are currently on a waiting list for subsidized housing with an average wait time of nearly a year. On top of this, an additional 15 percent report they are unable to get on a waiting list because it is closed. The private housing market is not particularly well-suited to serve those with the least income. Consequently, most of the work of creating affordable housing, including permanent supportive housing with services, has fallen to the nonprofit and government sector.
In addition to lack of employment or ability to afford the cost of housing, there are other barriers to finding new housing including poor credit and rental histories, and/or criminal history. Almost half of homeless adults have spent time in a correctional facility.
3. Most homeless people have barriers to living independently.
In one of our analyses, we calculate the number of individuals who have some recent employment experience (or stable income stream) and could live independently without ongoing supports. In 2012, we found about 90 percent of the homeless population need more than just housing. This compares to around three-quarters of homeless adults in 1999.
We have gotten better at smoothing pathways to housing for those with fewer obstacles, and have developed longer-term supports for others, but we still struggle to find feasible exits for those with significant mental health issues, dealing with violence, and those whose starts in life included so much adversity that they have never developed the skills and support networks needed to gain a foothold on a path to stability. Over the course of eight homeless studies beginning in 1991, we have seen measurable increases in the level of distress in the population -- one-third of homeless adults report a cognitive impairment (confusion, memory issues, or indecisiveness to the point that it interferes with daily activities), and one-half report a physical, mental, or other condition that limits either the work they can do or their daily activities. In fact, the incidence of significant mental illness in the homeless population is more than twice what it is in the general population.
Nearly one-third of homeless women are homeless as a direct result of domestic abuse. This proportion is higher in greater Minnesota (35%) than the Twin Cities area (28%).
Those experiencing long-term homelessness are more likely to have multiple health problems. Six of 10 long-term homeless adults have a serious mental illness and about half have a condition that limits the kind or amount of work they are able to do.
For those who will need ongoing supportive services to stay in housing, we have seen success in the creation of new supportive housing opportunities as part of the statewide plans for ending homelessness – Heading Home Minnesota – but the new supportive housing falls far short of keeping up with the need that is created daily.
4. The path to adulthood is steep and rocky for some youth.
Youth transitioning into adulthood are at increased risk for homelessness. Our study found ages 16 and 18 were the most common ages to first experience homelessness.
Most homeless youth come with childhood histories of trauma and long-term health issues. About half were physically abused, 1 out of 3 neglected, and 1 out of 4 sexually abused as a child. More than half (58%) have had at least one placement in a foster home, group home, or facility for persons with emotional, behavioral, or mental health problems.
Unfortunately, compared to single adults and families, youth on their own have the fewest services available to them. There are fewer shelters available for youth and fewer legal provisions for housing and other basic needs. Many youth on their own stay outside of the shelter system.
5. Poverty is still concentrated among people of color; racial disparities exist.
One of the most pressing and consistent themes throughout the 21 years of homelessness research statewide is the overrepresentation of persons of color, across all age groups. In fact, racial differences are more pronounced in Minnesota than just about any other part of the United States. The disparities are most prevalent among African Americans, especially in the Twin Cities, and American Indian people, especially in greater Minnesota. Like other racial disparities in Minnesota—home ownership, health, educational achievement, child placement rates, etc.—these disparities are not likely to go away without a broad range of concentrated efforts as well as a hard and steady look at what is causing them in the first place.Only long-term solutions like those embodied in our state plans for ending homelessness, have a chance of righting this imbalance in Minnesota.
Wilder Research has been conducting the study since 1991 to better understand the prevalence, causes, circumstances and effects of homelessness, and to promote efforts toward permanent, affordable housing for all Minnesotans.