"Destitute in the Suburbs", Lakeshore Weekly News, December 2015

By Amanda Schwarze
Lakeshore Weekly News
December 23,2015

As members of a local church were participating in a sleepout to raise awareness of poverty in the area, an unexpected guest helped – a homeless man who was living in the truck he had parked in the church’s lot.

That man is not an anomaly in the western suburbs. There are high school students who don’t know where they will be spending the night, multiple families sharing small apartments, adults sleeping in cars and seniors depending on relatives for a home.  The homeless in the suburbs are all ages, come from all backgrounds and their numbers are growing.  “These are the people we see every day,” said LaDonna Hoy, executive director of Interfaith Outreach & Community Partners (IOCP) in Plymouth.

According to the IOCP, 55 percent of the Twin Cities’ poor population lives in the suburbs. Of the 2,033 families that IOCP served from April 1, 2014, through March 31, 2015, 285 were experiencing homelessness. That number is about three times higher than the number of homeless families they served the previous fiscal year. Then, the organization served 88 families who were experiencing homelessness.

Chris Anderson, director of community outreach for Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Excelsior, works with a group called West Ecumenical Service Team (WEST), which is made up of churches in and around Excelsior that help people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness. He said that in November, he knew of nine different homeless families in Excelsior.  “A lot of it is hidden,” said Jessie Billiet, a case manager at ICA Food Shelf in Minnetonka.

The homeless in the suburbs are hidden because they are sleeping on the couch in the home of a relative or friend, or they might be living out of their vehicle. Others are forced to leave the community because of a lack of affordable housing and apartments that take renters with housing vouchers.  Housing is considered affordable, according to the Metropolitan Council, when a family with a moderate or low income pays no more than 30 percent to 40 percent of its monthly income for housing. Hoy said that even at the 30 percent level, many families are stretching their budgets to the limits. Among IOCP clients, she said, it’s not unusual for some to spend up to 70 percent of their income on housing.

Pat Gau, another ICA case manager, said landlords in Minnesota don’t have to accept housing vouchers. Over time, fewer have accepted them. Now there is less affordable housing than there was 20 years ago, said Mikkel Beckmen, director of the Minneapolis/Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness.  “The competition for housing is pretty fierce,” Beckmen said.

With so few buildings accepting tenants with vouchers, those that do are getting people from all over the metro. Anderson said that shelters in Minneapolis have sent people with no connection to this area to apartments in Excelsior. Their rent is paid for 90 days with the goal of allowing the tenants to take that time to find a job and get settled. Those people, however, have few possessions and likely no support systems in place. Recently, Anderson said, a man in that position showed up at the church who literally had nothing more than the clothes on his back. With no car, no computer and no knowledge of the area, it’s difficult for people to become financially stable within three months, he said.

Finding a job may not be enough for many homeless people. Hoy, Billiet and Gau said they frequently meet with people who are employed, but they’re working low-wage, part-time jobs with no benefits. Even when someone works several of those jobs, one problem can destroy their finances. A broken down car, an illness or anything that may mean missing a day of work or spending extra money could be disastrous.  “People are living on the the edge,” Hoy said. “They’re just hanging on.”

When someone seeks assistance from an organization like IOCP or ICA, they usually have one primary, urgent need, Hoy said, such as paying the rent, or paying for car repairs. Behind that primary need, are several factors that are leading to that problem, like a low-wage job, or child care needs that are too expensive.

While there are many factors that help lead people to poverty, Hoy, Billiet, Gau and Anderson agreed that transportation is an issue that needs to be addressed. The bus service in the area is limited and mainly focused on the typical commuter schedule. Even with that service, many people still need a car to get to work, job interviews, appointments or the grocery store.

Another issue closely tied to poverty in the area is education. Hoy said that the changing job market has left some people without the skills they need to make a living wage. Those who don’t have basic computer skills are already well behind the curve, she said.“Education is the surest way out of poverty,” Hoy said.

Among the people who know that best seem to be homeless youth.  “Ninety percent of homeless youth are still in school,” said Teens Alone Executive Director Lydia Kihm.  Estimates of the number homeless youth in the area differ. Pam Langseth, board member of Open Hands Foundation and a member of the Minnetonka School Board, said a study showed that there are about three to four homeless teens for every major high school in the area plus some homeless middle school students. Wayzata High School social worker Alec Albee said that number sounds accurate, but he said that most of the homeless students he works with are without a home for just a short period. He said he can count on one hand the number of students he sees in a year who are homeless for more than a few days.

Kihm estimates that number is higher; she said on any given day there are probably 30 homeless youth at the major west metro high schools. People tend to think the number is lower because many homeless students hide their situation for fear they will get in trouble, she said. Other homeless teens don’t think of themselves as homeless if they’re sleeping indoors, she said, even if they don’t know where they’ll be spending the night.  “Many of them are unseen,” Kihm said. “They’re couch hopping and going from place-to-place every night.”

Even with the chaos going on in their lives, most homeless teens have a strong desire to stay in their school and their communities, Langseth said. Open Hands Foundation is working with Westwood Community Church in Chanhassen and the Minneapolis organization The Bridge for Youth to open a shelter for young people who need emergency housing. The church donated a house in Chanhassen for the shelter that will have six beds. The Bridge for Youth will supply the professional staff at the house while Open Hands Foundation will cover the operating costs of the shelter, which are expected to be $550,000 per year.

The shelter is expected to open for overnight stays soon, but it is currently open during the day to help teens with counseling or to find other services they might need. The only other emergency shelter for youth in the west metro is the other Bridge for Youth site in Uptown, Langseth said. There the average stay is four nights, during which the teen receives a physical and mental health screening and counseling. The Chanhassen shelter will be run in the same way. The goal, Langseth said, is to reunite the teen with his or her family. If that’s not possible, the staff will find the young person other long-term housing.

The shelter is available to young people between the ages of 10 to 17. Teens Alone offers services to young people up to the age of 24 at its location in the Eisenhower Community Center in Hopkins. There, they can find food, guidance with resumes and assistance finding other services that might be of help to them. The organization also runs the Suburban Host Home Program, where adults offer food and lodging for a homeless young person for up to nine months.

Regardless of the age of the people involved, poverty and homelessness are complex issues. The many organizations, churches and individuals working on the problem are seeing some results. Beckmen said thanks to local efforts and new federal programs, there are few homeless veterans left in the metro area. He estimated that housing will be found for the remaining veterans in the first half of 2016.

Locally, groups have created networks where someone seeking help can easily be directed to the services that will best fit them. The donations from residents have helped countless people by keeping them fed, helping them with rent and giving them assistance in their job search.

“This community is faithful, they have stuck with us,” Hoy said. “We are very, very fortunate to have people who know how to get things done here, and they have the heart and the will to help all kids and families have whatever they need.”

More help, however, will always be welcome, Anderson said.  “There will never be too much help with this,” he said.