On a snowy day when even the thought of walking outside made the average person shudder, housing and homeless advocates from across the state gathered in the State Capitol rotunda Tuesday afternoon to show their support for people who have to sleep outside.
Advocates arrived at the Capitol at 8:30 a.m. and spent the morning in individual meetings with legislators, encouraging them to keep Minnesota’s homeless in mind when dealing with balancing the state’s budget.
Housing Minnesota, the Minnesota Senior Federation, the Dorothy Day Center and the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless organized the event.
The rally began at 12:30 p.m. when the crowd started chanting “raise our taxes,” after a woman from the crowd climbed to the podium and asked the crowd who would rather have their taxes raised than see homeless people suffer on the streets. The chant echoed through the rotunda, audible to any passing legislator.
“Homelessness is not Democratic and it’s not Republican,” said the Rev. Al Gallmon, president of the NAACP Minneapolis branch. “It’s not independent. Homelessness is wrong,” he said.
Gallmon spoke to a gathering of more than 300 legislators, homeless advocates and homeless people.
Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, Minn., said the government needs to make sure there are incentives for developers to build affordable housing.
“There is no way government can solve this problem by itself,” Lanning said.
Lanning said from 1990 to 2000, households in Minnesota grew by 15 percent, while housing units grew by only 12.4 percent.
The problem was exacerbated by a 61 percent increase in the average cost of housing over the same period, but only a 50 percent increase in the average income, Lanning said.
Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, also spoke to the group. Too short to see over the lectern, she stood to the side and joked about how the event planners forgot a stepstool for her. She said she might be standing to the side of the podium, but she does not stand to the side when it comes to issues of homelessness.
Moua quoted Gov. Tim Pawlenty as saying that in times of crisis, everybody needs to make sacrifices.
“I don’t know anybody,” Moua said referring to homeless people, “who hasn’t learned the definition of sacrifice.”
Moua discussed the need for Minnesota to take care of its most vulnerable citizens, like senior citizens forced to live in their cars and children born into a life on the streets.
“We here at the Capitol need to take care of all the people of the state of Minnesota, not just a certain few,” she said.
Several homeless people spoke at the rally, sharing their personal experiences with homelessness to listeners.
Chuck Phenix, who has been homeless for more than two years, started by protesting the traditional stereotype of a homeless man. “The unwashed, alcoholic, drug addict looking for a free ride,” he said.
He spoke of Seattle’s homeless people, who he said organize and run their own shelters, complete with a storage locker system where people can keep their belongings when they are living on the streets.
“It’s hard to go into a job interview carrying all your possessions on your back,” Phenix said.
Phenix also insisted on the community’s need to get involved.
“(The rotunda) is a great place for grassroots democracy,” Phenix said. “Homelessness is not just the result of broken individuals, it is the result of broken communities.”
Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman spoke to the advocates about Hennepin County’s steps is taking to help homeless people get off the streets, into shelters and – ultimately – permanent housing.
Dorfman accused the Pawlenty administration of ignoring people on the brink of homelessness.
“If this administration has its way, our most vulnerable citizens will be losing their housing,” she said.
Dorfman then made an unorthodox suggestion that drew cheers from the crowd.
“Our governor has a nice new mansion,” Dorfman said. If there are homeless, “send ’em to the mansion!” she shouted.
Officials from the Pawlenty administration were unavailable for comment Tuesday night.
Emily Johns welcomes comments at [email protected]