Standing room only at discussion on bills to help the homeless

by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor

It was Homeless Day on the Hill at the State Capitol in St. Paul Thursday (March 7).

Hundreds assembled to carry their message that homelessness touches thousands of children and adults in Minnesota. Many crowded into a small committee room in the State Office Building to hear testimony on two pieces of homeless legislation.

Those in attendance represented major homeless and housing organizations in the state and were joined by local units of government and school districts who have recognized the increased costs to them due to homelessness, said Liz Kuoppala, Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. She said visitors to the Capitol came from Rochester, Worthington, Moorhead, Bemidji and from the metro, suburban and urban areas of the state, all touched by homelessness.

Two bills, House File 937 and House File 698 were introduced to the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee. They were both laid over to the Omnibus Finance Bill.

It was the largest crowd the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee had seen this session, said Rep. Thomas Huntley, DFL-Duluth, in opening a committee hearing on two pieces of homelessness legislation. It was Homeless Day on the Hill. (Photo by Howard Lestrud, ECM Publishers)

It was the largest crowd the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee had seen this session, said Rep. Thomas Huntley, DFL-Duluth, in opening a committee hearing on two pieces of homelessness legislation. It was Homeless Day on the Hill. (Photo by Howard Lestrud, ECM Publishers)

Prior to hearing the bills, committee Chair Thomas Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said attempts were made to find space for attendees to hear the testimony in another room. That attempt failed, and Chairman Huntley urged attendees to refrain from applause and to find a place to be seated. Many were seated or stood in aisles of the committee room.

Rep. Carolyn Laine, DFL-Columbia Heights, introduced the first bill, HF 937, on appropriations for homeless services, transitional housing and emergency services.

The bill appropriates money for long-term homeless supportive services, housing and services for homeless youth, transitional housing programs and emergency services grants.

According to a bill overview, homeless programs support drop-in centers, shelters and transitional housing programs operated by Community Action Agencies, tribal governments and other nonprofit organizations  to prevent homelessness and to provide safe shelter and to increase the ability of homeless families and individuals to secure and maintain stable, independent housing and economic self-reliance.

Laine, the bill’s sponsor, thanked all who attended and said the homeless are not so invisible any more. She spoke of a 6 percent increase in those living in shelters and said child homelessness has increased by 46 percent. She said that nearly half of the homeless in Minnesota are 21 years of age or younger.

Homelessness causes anxiety, depression and withdrawal, Laine said. “Our younger people are under too much stress,” Laine said. Rental housing costs are higher, Laine said, and more than half of incomes are going for rent, she said. The spiral of home foreclosures and rental demand have caused a need for a continuum of long-term supportive services and transitional housing, Laine said.

Nancy Cashman of the Center City Housing (Transitional Housing Program) told of instances where people are staying in laundromats or in skyways. She said that homelessness is most often caused by domestic violence. Of the homeless, Cashman said 50 percent or more have been in correctional facilities and 100 percent are experiencing some type of trauma.

There is a high need to interrupt the cycle of homelessness, Cashman said. An investment in children early in their lives can result in success later, she said. Needs are not just housing but services, too, Cashman said.

Committee member Glen Gruenhagen, R-St. Paul, said he was saddened to see how many people are in stress today. He told of working 13 years in a jail ministry. Acknowledging the value of government programs, Gruenhagen said they sometimes make things worse rather than better. Witness Rich Hooks Wayman of Health Connection said government is part of the solution for homelessness.

Committee member Tina Liebling, DFL-St. Paul, praised those in attendance, saying “you are here because you care about other people and want to strengthen our communities.”

Laine’s legislation features appropriations for the following:

• $9.95 million in each year of the 2014-15 biennium from the general fund for long-term homeless supportive services

• $5.95 million in each year of the 2014-15 biennium from the general fund for transitional housing programs

• Appropriates $850,000 in each year of the 2014-15 biennium for emergency services grants

• Appropriates $4 million in each year of the 2014-15 biennium to provide housing and services to homeless youth under the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act

Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, introduced HF 698, titled the Homeless Youth Act.

Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, has authored House File 698, the Homeless Youth Act. She spoke the bill as did her witnesses, Jodi Harpstead, Neeka Russel and Derek Reger. (Photo by Howard Lestrud, ECM Publishers)

Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, has authored House File 698, the Homeless Youth Act. She spoke the bill as did her witnesses, Jodi Harpstead, Neeka Russel and Derek Reger. (Photo by Howard Lestrud, ECM Publishers)

This bill modifies the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act to identify mission goals, modify uses of funds, appropriate additional funding for the program and remove a mandated report. The legislation appropriates $8 million for the Homeless Youth Act from the general fund to the Department of Human Services for fiscal years 2014-15. The bill also repeals required development of a report on homeless and runaway youth as well as coordination of services funded under the Homeless Youth Act.

“The Homeless Youth Act goes a long ways to solving youth homelessness,” Halverson said.

Supporting a need for homeless youth and housing programs, Derek Reger, 19, of Brainerd, said he is still on the road to recovery and has been sober for two years. He plans to graduate in May and says he has not missed a day of school this year.

Jodi Harpstead, CEO for Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, said youth services provide the highest return on an investment. These youths later become contributing adults of our state, she said.

Halverson said her bill has strong bipartisan support and also state support.

Second-term lawmaker Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, said she believes there is a “huge need” for shelters, for transitional housing and for affordable housing. She praised Twin Cities activist Mary Jo Copeland for her work with the homeless. “Government does have a place in people’s lives to create a stronger community, state and world,” Moran said.

Neeka Russel, youth expert from the metro area, testified that she “wants to make sure” that people like her have resources to match their paths in life. “We need to be part of the solution,” committee member, Rep. Peter Fischer, DFL-Maplewood, said.

 

Howard Lestrud can be reached at howard.lestrud@ecm-inc.com

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