On Thursday, in towns and cities around the country, volunteers will fan out to conduct a specialized census. Called the “point-in-time count,” it’s a federally required annual tally of homeless people, both those who can sleep in a temporary shelter and those holed up in places generally not deemed habitable — abandoned buildings, parks, bridges and transit vehicles that run through the night.
When counters in Minnesota meet a homeless military service veteran, they’ll do one thing more — extend an invitation. In the Twin Cities area, a volunteer driver will pick up willing vets and take them to the National Guard Armory in St. Paul. There, public and nonprofit service providers dubbed the Veteran Rapid Response Team will be available through 3:30 p.m. Friday to offer a hot meal, a warm place to sleep and counseling to devise individualized plans for permanent housing. Those found outside the Twin Cities will be offered a phone consultation.
The census effort is a push toward achieving a goal that is tantalizingly within reach — ending homelessness among Minnesota’s veterans. As of Jan. 6, state officials knew the names of 157 vets whom they have not yet found or persuaded to establish a plan for permanent housing. The hope is that many of them will be found Thursday and housed soon thereafter.
If that happens, Minnesota will be much closer to joining the state of Virginia and several U.S. cities in declaring that it has ended veteran homelessness. And although some veterans might still be without a home for brief periods, an effective system will be in place to help newly homeless veterans find permanent lodging within an average of four months.
The nearness of that milestone is one of several good-news items about homelessness in Minnesota. A report due for release Thursday at a meeting of the 11 state-agency heads who comprise the state’s Interagency Council on Homelessness highlights more — even as it points to continuing challenges. For example:
• The 2015 point-in-time count saw a 10 percent drop since 2014 in homelessness among all Minnesotans, the first such year-over-year decline since 2011.
• A 17 percent decline was registered last year in homelessness among families with children, a cohort among whom homelessness had been climbing since the Great Recession.
• Minnesota’s progress has come as many other states saw rising counts, noted Cathy ten Broeke, state director to prevent and end homelessness. That suggests that recent state policy changes may have mattered at least as much as the economy in driving down homelessness.
What changed? In a nutshell, better coordination of services that can be brought to bear to either prevent the imminent loss of a home or remedy that loss soon thereafter. That, plus an infusion of state funds: the 2014 Legislature invested $110 million via both housing and general-obligation bonds to create or preserve more than 4,000 units of affordable housing.
When a treatment regimen is working, a patient — or a state — is well advised to stick with it. On Thursday, the Interagency Council is set to update its two-year-old coordination plan, adding emphases on hard-to-house populations, such as unaccompanied youth and people released from correctional facilities. Meanwhile, the 2016 Legislature will consider Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal to put another $90 million into affordable and supportive housing. Those are big efforts, befitting a big problem that increasingly looks solvable.