Mayoral candidates discuss homelessness

Eight candidates for mayor were invited to a Sept. 26 forum on homelessness hosted by First Universalist Church of Minneapolis in CARAG. Photo by Dylan Thomas

Eight candidates for mayor met Sept. 26 for a forum on homelessness in Minneapolis.

Hosted by First Universalist Church of Minneapolis in CARAG, the forum was moderated by Monica Nilsson, who has worked in leadership roles at St. Stephen’s Human Services and for nine years served as board chair for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.

Nilsson began the forum by recalling that, just one week earlier, the temperature in Minneapolis was 78 degrees and all 800 shelter beds in the city were full. On a seasonable cool night, she noted, the temperature had already dropped and would soon drop much more.

The first question prompted candidates to reflect on a recently completed 10-year collaboration between Hennepin County and Minneapolis that sought to end homelessness. By one estimate, Nilsson said, the population of people experiencing homelessness had actually increased during that decade-long effort.

State Rep. Raymond Dehn said the city needed to take a “systems approach” to homelessness by attacking a constellation of related issues, including access to affordable housing, mental health, addiction and employment. He noted many of the nonprofits that focus on those issues had experienced a decrease in funding.

Al Flowers said that, 10 years ago when the effort began, he was a single father raising three children and counted himself among the city’s homeless. Flowers said the city, county and state had failed to live up to their promises and that the public needed to hold them accountable.

Ward 3 City Council Member Jacob Frey said the estimated population of people experiencing homelessness might have grown, in part, because methods for counting that population had improved. Noting that 60–70 percent of the homeless population is working, Frey said the city needed to examine the role health care expenses and the rising cost of living in Minneapolis play in keeping people from finding stable housing.

Tom Hoch noted other factors that may have added to the homeless population, including the recession and a tornado that damaged some affordable housing units on the North Side. Adding that “we continue to have a wage problem,” Hoch said the reality for many homeless is they simply cannot afford a place to live.

Mayor Betsy Hodges noted that she served as co-chair of the city-county effort, dubbed Heading Home Hennepin, and said it had some success targeting “long-term, chronic homelessness,” but added that it wasn’t possible a decade ago to predict the economic downturn and the subprime mortgage crisis that caused many to lose their homes. Hodges said the city needs to devote more resources to what she described as the worst housing crisis since the Great Depression.

In her response, Nekima Levy-Pounds highlighted the role of the criminal justice system in creating housing instability for young offenders, and said people experiencing homelessness should be involved in creating solutions. Levy-Pounds also suggested stronger oversight of developers in the “non-profit housing-industrial complex.”

Aswar Rahman said he was “ashamed” of the city’s record on homelessness, adding that a top-down, “metrics-based approach” was part of the problem. Rahman said the city should instead focus on partnerships with organizations that provide food and shelter to the homeless and programs that provide job training for low-income populations.

Arguing that homelessness is driven by poverty and not a lack of housing, Captain Jack Sparrow emphasized the need for business and skills training while also advocating for a guaranteed basic income, ideas that he would return to throughout the evening.

A second question asked candidates to identify the most important issue to address regarding homelessness, and the framing of the question — which linked the “aesthetic quality” of a city to its commercial success and the well-being of its citizens — provoked a variety of responses.

Flowers said both shootings and youth violence have “a lot to do with homelessness,” while Frey’s response focused on inequality. Hodges, too, cited “systemic racism.” Hoch, the former Hennepin Theater Trust president, said the trust’s 5 to 10 Hennepin, which activates the street with art and activities, was an example of “engaging everyone on the street.”

Levy-Pounds said capitalism was a driving force behind homelessness, racism and other social ills by “putting profits over people.” Rahman argued that the city had misplaced priorities, and said it could invest more in the problem if it spent less on efforts like attracting the Super Bowl. Dehn said a better question would ask what businesses are doing to respond to homelessness, since business benefits from the aesthetic quality of the city and a workforce that has access to housing, transportation and affordable medical care.

The third question of the forum touched on a debate over the best use of a $400,000 federal grant to Minneapolis that city policy guides toward capital expenses at shelters. It can’t be used to add shelter beds or staff, although some advocates would like to see that policy change.

Frey said he was open to the idea of using the grant differently, but noted the $400,000 was “not even remotely close to what we need” — a point later echoed by Dehn — and argued it would be more effective to focus on housing, again noting many of those experiencing homelessness work but can’t bridge the “gap” into permanent housing. Hoch said the grant could buy 20 beds but wouldn’t be enough to keep them open, adding, “We simply need to make that commitment.”

While noting there were restrictions on how the grant dollars could be spent, Hodges said a “majority of the council” was blocking efforts to spend that money on adding beds, “including Council Member Frey.” Frey responded later in the forum, saying he would have supported a different use of the dollars if he’d been asked.

Levy-Pounds said the city was just one of many partners working together to end homelessness, adding that she would use the mayor’s bully pulpit to make it a central issue. Rahman, too, said housing instability should be a higher priority, adding that in the long run the city also needs to keep an eye on the rising cost of living.

Flowers suggested Minneapolis follow Seattle’s example and adopt some form of a “linkage fee,” which ties funding for affordable housing to new development.

The final two questions asked candidates to focus on specific facets of the challenge: statistics that show people of color are disproportionately likely to experience homelessness and the risk factors that drive youth homelessness, particularly for LGBTQ and indigenous youth.

Hoch said the best way to address homelessness was to prevent it in the first place, adding that he would focus on jobs, safe communities and affordable housing as mayor. Hodges noted that her Cradle to K initiative was meant to address the disparities that arise early in life.

Levy-Pounds said she would “call a spade a spade” as mayor and force the city to reckon with persistent racial disparities, noting that children often experience homelessness because of generational poverty and the effects of unequal access to jobs and housing on their parents. Dehn also focused on the role of institutional racism in creating and widening those disparities in his answer, adding that a holistic response to homelessness would include increased access to addiction and mental health treatment. Frey noted the effects of institutional racism are reflected in health rates and the disparate impacts of pollution on Minneapolis neighborhoods, and said an ordinance he co-authored that tied pollution to fees was an example of taking action.

Rahman said the city needed to invest more in both early childhood care and vocational training programs. Sparrow said a recently approved ordinance that will gradually raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 was a mistake that would harm people of color the most by eliminating jobs. Flowers said the city needed better partnerships and a focus on results.