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Homelessness in Minnesota has reached a record high, with more people filling shelters or left outside, from sleeping in urban train cars to rural fish houses.

The number of homeless people statewide has risen 10 percent since 2015, according to a new report released Wednesday. The state’s 10,233 homeless people is the highest number recorded in the nearly three decades that Wilder Research has tracked the data.

“The numbers are quite startling,” said Senta Leff, the executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. “They’re higher than they’ve ever been. People should be alarmed and know that it’s solvable.”

Across the state, shelters are full, apartments have low vacancy rates and rents are rising — all while low-income wages haven’t kept pace. As a result, the number of people outside shelters rose a dramatic 62 percent from 2015, with people couch-hopping or seeking refuge in cars, under bridges and on buses.

“A lot of people are living one paycheck away from a crisis or one health problem away from a crisis,” said Michelle Decker Gerrard, the senior manager and study co-director at Wilder Research, the research arm of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. “There’s someone in our lives in that situation or it affects us. It affects everyone.”

According to the report, Minnesota’s homeless population peaked in 2012 with 10,214 people but fell between 2012 and 2015. However, the homeless portion of Minnesota’s population has remained fairly consistent over the years, representing less than 1 percent of the state’s total residents.

Wilder Research tracks the state’s homeless population every three years, picking one day to send out about 1,200 volunteers to help count — not just the people found sleeping outside, but also the number of people in emergency shelters, domestic violence shelters and transitional housing programs.

The rise in homelessness between 2015 and 2018 came as the number of homeless adults ages 25 to 54 grew 20 percent. But the demographic that saw the biggest increase in homelessness was adults age 55 or over.

Like many older adults, Vernell Mahonie, 62, is homeless for the first time in his life. He’s been homeless for more than a year after he said he was kicked out of his publicly funded apartment. He stayed with his daughter until she moved to Indiana and he was again without a place to stay.

“More people for some reason are being put on the streets,” Mahonie said at the Salvation Army Harbor Light Shelter in Minneapolis. “I’ve been fortunate enough to get on the inside.”

He still wants to move to his own place and said he’s applied for a Section 8 voucher while working with a counselor to find housing, but it’s been difficult because so many people are applying.

“I’m waiting to hear from them now,” he said, adding that it takes a mental toll. “I worry a lot.”

Not just a metro issue

Wilder Research did its count of Minnesota’s homeless population last October.

Gerrard helped survey people at shelters and free meal sites before trekking to the Target Field light rail station in Minneapolis at 11 p.m. on the cold fall night. There, she woke up the homeless people sleeping on the train, including one person who was trying to rest before working the next day.

“That was the hardest part of the day for me,” she said. “The people I talked to had considerable need.”

While homelessness increased 9 percent in the Twin Cities, homelessness jumped 13 percent in greater Minnesota from 2015 to 2018.

“This is a statewide issue,” Gerrard said. “People don’t think about that as much but the housing crisis is pretty evident there as well.”

Homelessness in the metro area became a more visible problem last year when several hundred people gathered at a homeless camp along Hiawatha Avenue in south Minneapolis. With winter coming to an end, homeless camps will again become more visible to the public, said Christine Michels, the senior program manager at Catholic Charities. Its two overnight shelters have nearly 600 beds that are almost always full.

“We’re really feeling stretched thin,” she said, noting the growing population of older adults who are on fixed incomes and may find themselves homeless for the first time: “You’re getting a whole new subset of people.”

Some signs of improvement

But there was an encouraging sign in Wednesday’s report. The number of homeless families decreased 5 percent. Over the years, there’s been more focus on helping homeless families and homeless children and unaccompanied youth — who make up nearly half of the homeless population in the state. There is a new homeless teen resource center in St. Cloud and a new homeless teen shelter in Duluth.

“It seems like those efforts are paying off,” Gerrard said.

Minnesota also aims to effectively end veteran homelessness by the end of the year.

Leff, of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, said Minnesota has to make even more investments to solve the problem. Her organization is pushing at the Legislature for $15 million per biennium in funding for the emergency services program to support the homeless. It is also seeking an increase in the Minnesota Family Investment Program, which gives cash assistance to families and hasn’t risen since 1986.

“Homelessness is not a character problem, it’s a math problem,” Leff said. “It’s the gap between what people earn with the cost to rent.”

Cathy ten Broeke, the state director to prevent and end homelessness, pointed out that Gov. Tim Walz and his administration included $150 million for affordable housing in its proposed budget.

There’s a “new level of enthusiasm, of leadership and commitment to the issue,” she said. “I’m feeling hopeful.”

Austen Macalus, a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune, contributed to this report.