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Guest Column: Homelessness Isn't Just Cardboard Signs or Loiterers on a Street

Hearth Connection spokeswoman Amy Brix defines the new face of suburban homelessness and explains why homelessness is increasing.

For those who imagine homelessness as cardboard signs and people loitering on streets, homelessness in the suburbs can be a completely different picture. Housing programs and shelters stretched beyond capacity leave the majority of struggling households to move in with friends or family, in a less visible form of homelessness known as “couch hopping” or “doubling-up.”

Homelessness in Dakota County is reportedly up 20 percent from last year; a point-in-time count conducted last January found over 1,000 people experiencing homelessness across the county. Over half were families with children.

Home foreclosures and rent affordability have only exacerbated the problem. While homelessness in the county is at an all-time high, the vacancy rate of rental properties is at its lowest since 2001, according to the 2010 Dakota County Rental Market Survey. When families are able to find an apartment, properties are often not affordable given their income. Rent devours monthly budgets for more than a third of Dakota County tenants who are cost-burdened by rental expenses.

Other symptoms of economic distress are appearing throughout the county. Dakota County reports that public assistance caseloads (ie food support, medical assistance) have more than doubled from 2000 to 2011. And despite increased shelter beds for men and a new youth housing program, community organizations are scrambling to find solutions for people without a place to sleep.

The 10-year plan launched this spring will help to address unmet needs and coordinate the response to homelessness in the county. Crafted with the support of advocates representing local nonprofits, faith communities, service providers, county departments, and other local groups, Heading Home Dakota’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness is a solid framework for working together to address homelessness. The plan seeks community investment in a range of services that are based on research and evaluations to help transform lives.

Dakota County has also been a partner in Hearth Connection’s Metropolitan Regional Project to End Long-Term Homelessness since 2006. The Metro Regional Project is a collaboration of the seven metro counties and local nonprofits that offer people experiencing long-term homelessness (without stable housing for a year or more, or four times in the last three years), supportive services and permanent housing in the community. This program brings hope and improved stability to people with multiple barriers to housing.

In the January survey of people experiencing homelessness, nearly a quarter (24 percent) of people counted in Dakota County were long-term homeless. Collaboration with local officials and the community has been positive, but more work building resources needs to be done in order to serve everyone who has lived for so long without a place to call home.

As much as we need the leadership of advocates at the state and county levels, we also need the involvement of the community to tackle the growing issue of homelessness. Sometimes the problems we’re facing can appear too large to cure, but we have models that work to end homelessness. The next step is to encourage awareness and support the involvement of community members, businesses, homeless service organizations, and all levels of government.

With the energy of the community, we can bring these plans to fruition, and bring all Minnesotans home.

Please contact community organizations in your area to see how you can help; local shelters are consistently in need of donations and volunteers. Check out a community meeting on homelessness information and response planning. And when the legislative season arrives, please raise your voice in support of people facing homelessness and poverty.

Amy Brix, Hearth Connection

Editor's Note: Homelessness rates in Dakota County and other suburban communities in Minnesota have risen substantially in the last five years. This letter to the editor is part of a Patch series exploring that trend. Click on the links below to read other articles on the topic.

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