See more of the story

It's good to see Minnesotans bring issues of homelessness to the State Capitol. Last week's Homeless Day on the Hill did just that. But for the largest segment of the homeless population — single adults — 50 years of policy and societal change has led to today's chronic conditions, which are likely beyond the ability of any state's legislature to reverse.

To be sure, homelessness has always been with us. But, especially for single adults, we are in a modern era that has greatly reduced their options to escape a homeless life. Four key systematic changes began 50 years ago and have laid the foundation for today's chronic homelessness.

1) Urban renewal. The wholesale destruction of cheap, pay-by-the-week housing began in the 1960s. Most think of this as "skid row" flophouses, but it was much more than that. Privately owned residential hotels or rooming houses were common. For those working day-labor or entry-level jobs, returning veterans, students, or those just trying to make a fresh start, this housing meant stability. For residents, owners had two requirements: pay the rent and behave yourself. But development, tighter building and occupancy codes, NIMBY, and other forces virtually eliminated this option. Today, these same people are crowded into homeless shelters or, as a requirement to receiving public funding, compelled to participate in costly programs to rehabilitate them, whether they need it or not.

Not every homeless adult needs a program — they just need a safe, cheap place to live. But that is woefully hard to find, and without it, getting back on your feet is much harder.

2) Deindustrialization. In 1979, 20 million Americans worked in manufacturing. Today it is 12 million. This transformation has essentially eliminated opportunities for those without a lot of education to live a middle-class life. When factories closed, it brought poverty and homelessness to those who lost work, and it closed the door for millions of young adults to the earn wages sufficient to buy or rent a home and raise a family. In many ways, it rendered too many young men irrelevant and exiled to life on the street corner, working low-paying, dead-end jobs. It has undermined families and devastated communities.

3) War on drugs. With the world's highest incarceration rate, America has 1.75 million people either in prison or under corrections supervision for drug offenses. We've locked up two generations of young people, usually poor and/or minority, on drug charges. When released, they possess few marketable skills and, with felony records, are systematically and legally excluded from many jobs and housing options. I understand we want people to be accountable for their actions, but this is a grossly ineffective and costly practice too often leading to homelessness.

4) Deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill. Perhaps most tragically, this era brought a well-intentioned but catastrophically executed plan to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill. We closed the big state hospitals, but the part about reintegrating them back into society has far too often meant jail or homelessness.

According to a Wilder Research study, nearly half of homeless Minnesota adults have a mental illness. Any shelter operator or police officer can tell heartbreaking stories of interaction with those who are mentally ill and on the street, many of them veterans.

Under the best circumstances, living a fulfilling life with a severe mental illness is a significant challenge. But facing the illness while homeless is a burden no one should bear. No one asks to be sick with depression or schizophrenia, yet these people often end up on the street or in jail, a destiny worse than state hospitals. The fate of the homeless mentally ill in America is one of this country's worst failures.

Policies of the past 50 years led to barriers that the poorest among us face in living a stable and productive life. And, ironically, the financial cost of tolerating homelessness has been far more expensive than ending it would be.

Ed Murphy is executive director of Open Your Heart to the Hungry and Homeless in Minneapolis.