Forum addresses housing and homelessness issues

by Lucas Kunach

Children make up about 50 percent of Minnesota’s homeless population, according to figures announced at a forum Monday in recognition of National Hunger and Homelessness Week.
Rep. Mary Jo McGuire, DFL-Falcon Heights, said although housing and homelessness are important issues, they compete with many other state government issues. McGuire spoke along with three other panelists at Coffman Union; about 30 attended the event.
She said the constituents’ voices have an influence on which issues receive the most attention and resources.
“We’ve just got to keep letting our legislators know these are issues we care about,” McGuire said. “We just need to hear more of an outcry.”
Michael Dahl, director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, said many homeless people are working. He said he believes up to 70 percent of the homeless at St. Stephen’s Shelter in Minneapolis hold jobs.
However, Dahl said the most recent research indicates 38 percent of the state’s homeless are employed.
He dispelled myths about the stereotypical homeless male, arguing that the number of homeless children has risen dramatically in the past decade.
For example, 2,505 individuals applied for shelter on one night in August 1990, according to Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning statistics. Men accounted for 40 percent of the applicants.
On Aug. 26, 1999, the number of individuals who applied for shelter nearly doubled to 5,869. Children accounted for 49 percent of those individuals.
“It’s unjust that anyone should have to go without a home, especially if they’re trying to do something about it,” Dahl said, blaming a lack of affordable housing as the primary reason for homelessness.
Consumer-affairs advocate Russel Langley said the homeless problem is an immediate concern to college students.
“Probably many of the people in this room aren’t that far away from being homeless,” he said.
Langley said a larger portion of student income goes toward rising housing costs, leaving many students scrambling for affordable housing.
Gregory Scott, a former homeless person who now serves as an advocate, said a series of events ending in depression caused him to leave his former retail manager position. He entered the House of Charity, a Minneapolis shelter, in February 1998.
During his five-month stay at the shelter, Scott said residents’ medications disappeared without any explanation, and they were not allowed to assemble in groups.
Scott was evicted late July 1998, after he raised complaints about the lack of rights. He now works as an advocate for the rights of homeless people with mental disabilities — with special emphasis on homeless legal issues.
“Keep in mind there are teeth to this thing because there are federal laws behind this,” Scott said.
Theresa Zahn, a member of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group’s task force on housing and urban sprawl and co-planner for the event, said discussions on homelessness are important to college students.
“These are people that haven’t been voting very long and have just started thinking politically,” Zahn said. “We need to put it in their minds early that homelessness is an important issue.”
Ricky Edwards, a senior in business administration who volunteers at shelters, said he agreed more people voicing their opinions would lead to action.
“I don’t feel good. … People in today’s society just don’t care about each other. That’s the way it is,” Edwards said, adding he was disappointed by the forum’s low turnout.
Other campus events marking the homeless-awareness week include a coat and clothing drive organized by the Community Empowerment through Learning and Leadership group and a canned-food drive sponsored by Hillel, the Jewish student center.
The forum was a joint event planned by MPIRG, the Coffman Program Council and the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.

Lucas Kunach welcomes comments at [email protected].