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Homelessness in Minnesota declined slightly in the past five years, according to a new statewide study released Wednesday. But it remains at the second-highest level in 30 years of tracking data.

The study by Wilder Research is the first released by the nonprofit in five years, due to pandemic-related delays. It found that 10,522 Minnesotans last October were staying in shelters, transitional housing programs or living outdoors, including nearly 3,000 children.

That's a 7% decline from the record high in 2018. But researchers say the gap in data from 2018 to 2023 means there could have been fluctuations in homelessness, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"No one wants to see numbers that high," said Rebecca Sales, co-director of the study. "But there is a signal of positive things are happening ... although it is a minor decrease, it is a decrease nonetheless. To me that says that some of those investments and changes that have been made in the last five years had an impact."

Outdoor encampments increased significantly during the pandemic, especially in Minneapolis and St. Paul when people looked for safe places to stay as the coronavirus surged. But the pandemic also led to new assistance — from extra food stamp benefits to temporary eviction moratoriums.

Last year, the Legislature nearly tripled funding for youth homelessness programs and doubled funding for transitional housing while dedicating $100 million to build and expand shelters.

"If there are those significant investments ... we can have an impact," Sales said. "We hope this is the beginning of some momentum."

It was a historic session, with the most funding the state has ever dedicated to homelessness programs, said Matt Traynor, acting executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. But he's not hearing of any drop in the number of people in need, he said.

"It doesn't seem like it's decreasing," Traynor said. "We need to be proud as Minnesotans for the progress we've made. But we're far from ending homelessness. We can't let up."

Seeking support at the Capitol

At Catholic Charities Twin Cities, one of the largest homeless services providers in the state, the number of people in need of day services such as meals, showers and employment counseling went up 37% from 2022 to 2023. On Wednesday, the shelter at Higher Ground in St. Paul was full, as it often is.

"We're still seeing a strong need for our services," said Keith Kozerski, the nonprofit's chief program officer, adding that the complexity of cases has intensified, with more severe mental health and chemical health issues.

Wilder Research, the research arm of the Wilder Foundation in St. Paul, usually completes its statewide homeless survey every three years. But it was cancelled in 2021 because of the pandemic.

The results were released Wednesday to coincide with the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless' annual "Homeless Day on the Hill." Nearly 900 advocates gathered in St. Paul to lobby legislators to support funding and policy changes, including $50 million to expand shelters and transitional housing.

The state can also do more to boost affordable housing and prevent families from becoming homeless in the first place, said Ranee Rock, a policy fellow with the coalition who experienced homelessness for nearly seven years in the south metro.

"The only way we're going to end homelessness is if we're intentional and proactive," Rock said.

The state launched a strategic plan earlier this year that aims to reduce homelessness by 15% by 2026.

“I thought I’d won a million dollars,” said Roland Arnold after he had been given a key to his new apartment at Catholic Charities Higher Ground St. Paul Residence on Wednesday. Arnold, who sorted his 71 ties, had been homeless since...
“I thought I’d won a million dollars,” said Roland Arnold after he had been given a key to his new apartment at Catholic Charities Higher Ground St. Paul Residence on Wednesday. Arnold, who sorted his 71 ties, had been homeless since...

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Wilder's study results conflict with a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) report in December that homelessness increased 6% in Minnesota from 2022 to 2023, with 8,393 homeless people. But Sales said HUD data is usually lower than Wilder's count because Wilder has a broader definition of homelessness, including those who couch hop or double up living with others.

The HUD count also showed a decline in unsheltered people, whereas Wilder's study found that number stayed flat since 2018, representing a third of all Minnesotans experiencing homelessness. However, Sales said, the HUD count is done in January when there may be fewer unsheltered people during the winter.

Neither the Wilder nor the HUD reports offer a complete picture because of the transitory nature of homelessness. Wilder found that a higher proportion of people in greater Minnesota were unsheltered, suggesting a need for more services, Sales said.

"There are just not the shelter beds there compared to the metro," she said. "Homelessness just looks so different in rural areas. There are generally fewer support services and things are further apart."

For the first time in the more than 30 years of Wilder's study, six tribes — Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs, Red Lake, and White Earth — partnered with Wilder to survey homelessness. In 2018, Wilder counted 10,233 homeless Minnesotans, but later added tribal data to the count, increasing the total to 11,371 homeless Minnesotans that year. Of the six tribes that participated in the study, 95% of homeless people weren't staying in a shelter, she said.

Starting in May, Wilder will begin releasing specific reports about subsets of Minnesotans including veterans and youth, using information from interviews in October.

More homeless older adults

Wilder's study also found that nearly half the people experiencing homelessness in the state belong to families with children under the age of 18, though fewer children and youth under age 24 were experiencing homelessness in 2023 than five years before.

Meanwhile, the number of adults 55 and older experiencing homelessness rose 7%. Catholic Charities has also seen an increase in older adults like Roland Arnold, a 71-year-old former auto assembly line worker. For nearly 20 years, the Illinois native said he has bounced between different states, living in shelter after shelter and even sleeping outside for two years.

"I'm the street guy. I've been on this journey a long time," Arnold said. "There comes a time where enough is enough."

After two years of sleeping in bunkbed #22 in a massive room with 171 other men at Catholic Charities Dorothy Day Place in St. Paul, he was finally handed the keys to his own apartment there in January, complete with a bed, desk and dresser to store his Bible and 71 ties. He credits shelter liaison Brenda Beaulieu with helping him navigate the difficult transition to housing.

"I thought I'd won a million dollars," he said. "I was elated."