Kenny Johnson’s homeless shelter is usually quiet in the summer—but that changes in the winter, when the 46-person house fills up to capacity and dozens more put their names on the shelter’s waitlist.
That sort of demand isn’t unusual, said Johnson, a former drug addict and homeless person who found his calling as the coordinator for the Cochran House—a shelter in Hastings that caters to men who are recovering from substance abuse. The house opened in February 2010, and each winter since the opening, Johnson has been forced to turn away prospective residents.
The Cochran House isn’t alone.
The economy, a booming rental market with low vacancy rates, lack of health and human services funding and a host of other factors have led to a rising homelessness rate in suburban Dakota County, according to county officials and local nonprofit leaders. The county's tracking methods have also improved, which may also account for some of the increase.
In Dakota County, the number of homeless individuals or those at imminent risk of being homeless rose from 841 in 2011 to 1,013 in January 2012, according to point-in-time surveys conducted by the county. Neighboring counties have also experienced a similar trend. In Washington County, the number of homeless count grew from 93 individuals in 2008 to 381 at the point-in-time survey conducted in January. Anoka County’s 2012 survey totaled more than 1,400 homeless—at least 260 of which were teenagers or children.
Suburban homelessness, unlike its urban counterpart, is less visible, simply because many victims choose to couch hop, live out of their vehicles or stay with families, according to local experts.
"In the inner cities, you see people who are homeless queuing up outside the centers where they can get food or a bed or shelter for a night," said John Kemp, director of the South St. Paul-based Neighbors, Inc., a social services nonprofit. "We don’t have those places in Dakota County, so you don’t see the people. If you don’t see the people, you don’t think there is an issue."
But that doesn’t mean the suburban homeless escape many of the stereotypes that haunt their urban peers, according to Dakota Woodlands Director Beth Bromen.
It’s easy to blame the economy or drug abuse for homelessness, but the roots of the problem go deeper, Bromen said.
Unlike some emergency shelters, Dakota Woodlands in Eagan hasn’t struggled with long waiting lists or an overflow of clients in recent years. But that’s not to say the shelter hasn’t escaped unscathed from the trend.
In the past, many people the shelter assisted were what Bromen calls "quick turnaround" clients—people who were homeless because of a divorce, a lost job or a temporary medical issue.
But many of the clients Bromen helps now have multiple, significant problems preventing them from becoming self-sustaining. The barriers could be mental illness, a drug addiction, an unstable childhood or lack of education, among other issues.
Bromen's observations are backed up by a 2009 survey of homeless individuals in Dakota County. Of the homeless adults surveyed across the county, 74 percent suffered from mental illness, chemical dependency, a chronic health condition or some combination thereof. Nearly 70 percent have been homeless in the past, while 58 percent did not have a job or income.
At least one third of the people served at Neighbors Inc. have some form of mental illness, according to Kemp—and often their conditions stand in the way of stable housing.
"So you’re a person diagnosed with mental illness and … then you go off your meds or you don’t get your meds for whatever reason," Kemp said. "Suddenly, you don’t pay your rent and now you get evicted and you’re out on the street. If you’re manic-depressive and go off your meds for a day, the world can turn upside down. That’s a vicious cycle that we see a lot."
Bromen blames the long-term erosion of safety nets in society for the increasing severity of the cases her organization handles. For decades, the state has underfunded many of its health and human services programs—a problem only exacerbated by the recession.
"We chase some sort of magic bullet that doesn’t exist," Bromen said. "This is a complex problem and it's not easy, and we have to get a little more serious about it. We have to ask ourselves...is it acceptable for us to live with people who aren’t cared for, is that an acceptable society for us?"
Perhaps the most compelling reason for the rising rate of homelessness in Dakota County is that few resources exist for those who are homeless in the suburbs, compared to the resources established in urban areas, Kemp said.
“Why are they there, how are they being supported and why can’t that happen in the suburbs?” Kemp asked rhetorically. “I think part of the answer to that is because the budgetary infrastructure in the inner cities has been built up over the years to deal with those types of socio-economic problems, which is not true in the suburbs. All of a sudden those inner city problems move to the suburbs and the suburbs aren’t equipped to deal with them.”
But others, including Dakota County Housing Manager Eric Grumdahl, say the momentum to end homelessness locally is building.
In 2010, a coalition of nonprofit groups, government agencies, churches and others met to understand the nature and extent of homelessness in Dakota County, find gaps in current services and prepare a county-wide plan. The end result was “Heading Home Dakota”—an ambitious 10-year plan to end homelessness in the county.
The plan calls for an increase in outreach to the homeless, development of an adequate supply of housing, improved services and programs and community engagement. It's the first broad, community-based plan the county has developed, Grumdahl said.
Some, like Cochran House Coordinator Kenny Johnson, admire the goals of the plan but aren't sure it will succeed.
"I think it's a dream," Johnson said.
Editor's Note: Homelessness rates in Dakota County and other suburban communities in Minnesota have risen substantially in the last five years. This article is part of a Patch series exploring that trend. Click on the links below to read other articles on the topic.