Is Minnesota the land of 10,000 homeless people with mental illness? According to the Minnesota Coalition For The Homeless, “More than 20,000 people in Minnesota are without a home each day ….” “47% of homeless adults reported a significant mental health problem.”
Why are so many people with serious mental illnesses homeless? According to the National Resource and Training Center on Homelessness and Mental Illness (NRTC), a division of the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:
“People with serious mental illnesses have greater difficulty exiting homelessness than other people. They are homeless more often and for longer periods of time than other homeless subgroups. Many have been on the streets for years. Up to 50% have co-occurring mental illnesses and substance use disorders. Their symptoms are often active and untreated, making it extremely difficult for them to negotiate meeting basic needs for food, shelter, and safety and causing distress to those who observe them. They are impoverished, and many are not receiving benefits for which they may be eligible.”
“Those who have disabilities and are unable to work can find it nearly impossible to secure affordable housing in virtually every major housing market in the country,” according to NRTC.
With wind chills plummeting to near –40, as they did in mid- February, prolonged exposure to the elements can be deadly. Most shelters are only open at night; people have to leave in the daytime even when it is still bitterly cold. Capacity is inadequate, and once full, people may be turned away. Theft is another major problem, according to one homeless man: “You sleep with your shoes on; otherwise they might be gone when you wake up.” The potential loss of a backpack or duffel bag containing all their worldly possessions undoubtedly accounts for many homeless people’s reluctance to use shelters. Long-term housing is the only solution to homelessness, particularly for those with serious mental illness.
There is some help on the horizon. Governor Pawlenty’s proposed 2006 budget includes $25 million “for permanent supportive housing … to provide an innovative solution to the problem of chronic homelessness.” The private sector is also pitching in, according to a February 14, 2006 press release:
“In an effort to help end long-term homelessness in the Twin Cities, the Frey Foundation … will commit $5 million to spur the further development of housing and services.”
The $5 million, which will be distributed over 5 years, is touted as “the largest private gift to date” toward an overall goal of raising $50 million for “Minnesota’s Business Plan to End Long-Term Homeless-ness.” The press release quotes Frey: “The goal … is to expand and enhance the availability of supportive housing services and increase the supply of affordable housing in the Twin Cities.”
Unfortunately, increased funding for projects to end homelessness in Minnesota may only help offset drastic cuts in federal housing assistance programs. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless:
“While the President’s proposed budget does increase funding in some areas, the Homeless Assistance Grants increased by $209 million and Housing for People with AIDs saw a $14 million increase, it makes these increases by making reductions in other programs for low-income people, not by finding new resources.
“His proposals would cut $600 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) … and funding for Health and Human Services (HHS) discretionary programs would decline by $1.6 billion.
“HUD programs that are taking the largest reductions include the Community Development Block Grant, which would lose $736 million… a 20% decrease over FY 2006. Section 202, housing for the elderly, takes a 26% decrease in funding ($190 million) and Section 811, housing for people with disabilities, takes a 50% cut of $118 million. These two program cuts would significantly reduce housing assistance for some of our country’s most vulnerable populations including families, seniors and people with disabilities.”
The cut to Section 811, housing for people with disabilities, seems particularly at odds with the President’s stated goal of ending chronic homelessness within 10 years, given that up to half of homeless people are disabled with mental illness. Overall, the President’s proposed budget for FY 2007 slashes funding for housing assistance. This is at a time when HUD has yet to find housing for many of those whose homes were destroyed by hurricane Katrina. The National Coalition for the Homeless calls the President’s proposed budget one of “increased misery, desperation and despair.”
With such enormous cuts at the federal level, enhanced state funding is needed just to avoid increased homelessness. Given the President’s proposed FY 2007 budget, the goal of eliminating chronic homelessness may be unattainable, at least in the near term. Housing is the only real solution to homelessness, and it costs money to build and maintain housing.
For more information see:
• Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless at www.mnhomelesscoalition.org
• Governor Pawlenty at www.governor.state.mn.us (click link to budget)
• National Resource and Training Center on Home-lessness and Mental Illness at www.nrchmi.samhsa.gov
• The Frey Foundation at www.freyfoundationmn.org
• National Coalition for the Homeless at www.nationalhomeless.org.