Dispelling stereotypical views of the homeless

Who is most likely to be homeless in our community? You may immediately think of the man you see standing on the street corner each day when you go to work, but you may not think about the third grader in your child’s school.  

In fact, nearly half of all people experiencing homelessness in Minneapolis and throughout the state are children and youth. At the family shelters in Minneapolis, where more than 200 families and more than 400 children slept last night, more than half of the children are 5 or younger.  

Each day 30–60 school buses from at least 18 different school districts in the metro area come to take the children to school. At the end of the day, these children are bused back to the shelters where they must try to do their homework and get some rest.  

Even more concerning are the children who are not in shelters, but are living in places unfit for human habitation — abandoned houses without heat or electricity or cars in parking lots of suburban shopping centers.  

We cannot expect our children to succeed in school under these circumstances. And we are not talking about a few children. Seven percent of all students in the Minneapolis Public Schools experienced homelessness last year. That is nearly 3,000 students. The greatest increase in homelessness among students was in the Suburban Hennepin school districts — a whopping 35 percent increase.

The impact of homelessness on children is devastating. Housing instability leads to stress on multiple levels including fear for safety, lack of sleep, poor nutrition and high mobility resulting in a lack of sustainable relationships.  

Large bodies of research point to the fact that trauma and stress change children physiologically, literally impeding the development of the brain.  

Homelessness is traumatic and exceedingly stressful.  This quote from a Minneapolis elementary student says it all: “We were staying at my Grandma’s friend’s house, but Grandma had to go to the hospital. So, her friend’s son brought us to the shelter. When she gets out she is going to find a house and then come get us.”

While education can be a path out of poverty, many homeless children face multiple barriers to a positive educational experience, including lack of transportation, lack of adequate hygiene and nutrition, lack of a place to study or do their homework, and lack of sleep.  

Data from Minneapolis Public Schools show that at every age there is a large disparity between the achievement of homeless students and the rest of the student body. The disparity exists even when comparing homeless students to other students who are poor (on free and reduced lunch), indicating that housing stability, in and of itself, plays a very significant role in student achievement.

We know what works to prevent and end homelessness for these families and we are doing just that for hundreds of families each year. However, dollars targeted at preventing homelessness are spent within the first few days of the month.  

Rental subsidies, which allow families to afford housing in the market, are scarce and in even greater jeopardy this legislative session with the underfunding of the State’s Housing Trust Fund.  

Homeless families — even those that manage to find a job in today’s economy — simply cannot make the math work. In 2009, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Twin Cities area was $873. The median monthly income for a homeless family was $532.  

Homelessness is not an inevitable fact of urban (and suburban) life. It is a preventable and solvable tragedy. Our future as a community depends on changing the tide of homelessness — especially for children.

Cathy ten Broeke is the project coordinator for the Office to End Homelessness in Minneapolis and Hennepin County. For more information go to headinghomehennepin.org or e-mail Cathy ten Broeke at  [email protected]

How to help
— Volunteer to be a tutor and/or homework helper at a shelter.
— Volunteer in a school.
— Talk with your representatives about the importance of housing stability in the lives of children and ask them to support programs that are ending homelessness.
— Give generously to agencies ending homelessness for families every day.
— Contribute to educational enrichment activities for homeless and highly mobile students through The Success for Students on the Move Fund C/O Resource Development, Minneapolis Public Schools, 807  NE Broadway, Minneapolis MN 55413.
— To learn more, please go to headinghomehennepin.org.