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Nearly 20,000 Minnesotans were homeless on any given night in 2018 and a majority of them have experienced childhood trauma and physical or sexual violence, according to a new study released Wednesday.

While the study by Wilder Research covers data collected before the COVID-19 outbreak, it shows the depth of problems facing one of the Minnesota’s most vulnerable populations as the state tries to contain and treat the spreading virus.

“We are seeing an increase in the intensity and severity of homelessness,” said Michelle Decker Gerrard, who directed the study. “They have increased physical and mental health problems. We’re seeing more people on the street because shelters are full.”

The urgency was reflected in the executive order issued Wednesday by Gov. Tim Walz.

“Individuals without a home are exempt from the restrictions in this executive order, and they may move between emergency shelters, drop in centers, and encampments,” the order said. “Encampments should not be subject to sweeps or disbandment by state or local governments, as such sweeps or disbandment increase the potential risk and spread of COVlD-19.”

The study found that homelessness increased by about 10% between 2015 and 2018. Traumatic experiences in childhood, such as child neglect, a parent in prison or child abuse, hastened entry into homelessness for the 19,600 Minnesotans. Nearly three-quarters of homeless adults had experienced at least one traumatic experience.

In addition, the study showed that 58% of homeless adults have experienced physical or sexual violence. Women and people who identify as LGBTQ experienced violence at the highest rates.

Other findings include:

• Homeless adults ages 55 and older increased by 25%.

• Children represented 32% of the homeless population.

• 81% of homeless adults have a chronic physical health condition, mental illness, or substance abuse issues.

The study is based on data collected in 2018 by Wilder Research, which tracks the state’s homeless population every three years, picking one day to send out about 1,200 volunteers to conduct a count of homeless people. Wilder Research is the research arm of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.

Tracy Berglund, senior director of housing stability for Catholic Charities, said the Wilder data shows there is insufficient affordable housing and permanent supportive housing to meet the needs of extremely low-income people who are served by the shelters. “It shows our system is inadequate,” she said.

Monica Nilsson, shelter director of Strong Tower Parish and Elim Church Shelters in northeast Minneapolis, said Wednesday that current community practice is “to concentrate adults in crowded shelters 12 hours a day, and then release them into the public to wander and potentially spread or contract COVID-19 12 hours a day.”

“I’m glad the Legislature has the opportunity to mitigate this,” she said.

The governor’s budget includes $49.2 million to support increased shelter capacity that would cover more dollars for staff and supplies as well as isolation for more people to be removed from large congregate settings, said Cathy ten Broeke, assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness. The appropriation includes $10 million to prevent people from becoming homeless and $6.2 million to support veterans and their families from becoming homeless.

Ten Broeke said the Wilder study underscores the fact that the homeless population is at a higher risk of serious disease and death due to their age and medical condition.

She said that state Department of Health guidance says that among those prioritized for COVID-19 testing are people who are experiencing homelessness as well as shelter workers and outreach workers.