Statewide study shows homelessness increasing among children, mentally ill

Overall numbers have leveled off

WHITTIER — The most comprehensive study on homelessness in Minnesota to date has found that while overall numbers have leveled off from their peak in 2001, the percentage of children and people with serious mental illness experiencing homelessness has increased, according to researchers from the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.

The results were presented at a town hall meeting at Simpson Housing Services, 2740 1st Ave. S., on July 19.  

The study, which the Wilder Foundation has conducted statewide every three years since 1991, estimated that more than 9,200 people are homeless in Minnesota each night.  

While researchers pointed to the halting and slight reduction of homelessness as a sign of progress, they warned that the percentage of homeless who are mentally ill or children has increased during the same period, and has the potential for long-term implications if left unaddressed.

“The problem with this persisting over such a long period of time, one of the things that you have to deal with is that you create the likelihood of generational homelessness, just like you have generational poverty,” said Greg Owen, a consulting scientist for Wilder Research. “In the last study, 23 percent said they had been homeless as children. This is something we’ve got to respond to.”

The study found that people younger than 21 years old, either with their parents or unaccompanied, made up 45 percent of the state’s homeless population, and that those young people are three times more likely than the overall population to have mental or emotional difficulties and more likely to have a history of neglect and/or physical or sexual abuse.  

Some young people surveyed, according to Owen, had even resorted to prostituting themselves in exchange for a place to stay.

Michael Dahl, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, said he was also familiar with this occurring.

One positive sign that researchers found was that 90 percent of children with their parents attended school during the survey, the highest number since the study began in 1991. Owen said this is partially the result of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which has forced districts to make more accommodations in getting children to school.

The study also found that the percentage of homeless people with mental illness is now more than half, the highest since the study began in 1991. Many struggle with chronic health problems, substance abuse, and 30 percent had sustained head injuries that may have led to traumatic brain damage and cognitive disabilities.

Most, nearly 70 percent had medical coverage during October of 2006 when the study was conducted, but chronic, often multiple conditions increase the difficulty in providing stable care for the homeless.

Military veterans make up a quarter of the homeless men in the state. The study also found that 17 percent were veterans of the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that these veterans were twice as likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as other veterans.

The survey also found a significant racial disparity, especially in the metro area, among the homeless population. While black, American Indian and Hispanic people are only 10 percent of the state’s population, they make up 54 percent of the homeless population.

“We have to keep asking ourselves questions about systemic, institutional racism,” Owen said, noting the difficulty of discussing the race issue in homelessness.

The growing need for affordable housing figures into the Long Term Homelessness Initiative that the state took up in 2004, and calls for 4,000 new units of housing by 2010.

Dahl of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless agreed, and said that while some new construction is necessary, rental assistance is the primary way to help people find housing opportunities.

“The most important thing that communities need to do is be more welcoming of the facilities and services for low-income and homeless people,” he said. “When you already have so many homeless people with so few places they can afford to live, you need communities to be willing to take in at-risk people.”