“That’s crazy.” “Very frustrating!” Those are some reactions I’ve heard to the way that the Minnesota Department of Human Services is spending $3 million that the Legislature allocated to help Minnesota’s homeless youth, families and single adults. This troubled agency should rethink what it’s doing and how it operates.

Despite an emergency, one-time legislative allocation of $3 million, DHS officials recently told me that none of money will increase emergency shelter beds in the metro area.

“That’s crazy” according to Tony Simmons, director of High School for Recording Arts. About 50% of HSRA’s 325 students are homeless. As he explained, “the need is now” for more shelters.

People can become homeless because of huge medical bills, employers closing, sexual abuse, or other reasons. Wilder Foundation found that about one-third of Minnesota’s homeless live in Greater Minnesota, one-third in suburbs, and one-third in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The growth of unsheltered, homeless people in the metro area is “potentially explosive,” according to Eric Grumdahl. He’s the special projects director for the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness and the Minnesota Department of Education. He spoke at a Sept. 19 meeting that I attended.

Alaina Song-Brave, an outreach worker who herself formerly was homeless,  also attended that meeting. Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who’s visited homeless people living under bridges, asked Song-Brave to speak at this meeting.

Song-Brave is blunt. She told me “there’s no excuse” for not using some of the $3 million to increase metro area shelter beds. She agrees with DHS plans to increase metro outreach. She calls it “an obvious fact – we need both!”

Monica Nilsson who has spent 25 years trying to reduce homeless, lists Minnesota’s two top priorities as “increasing public awareness and increasing shelter for homeless people.”

There’s another DHS problem: On July 24, DHS staff promised to share information about the grants awarded with the $3 million when they were finalized, which DHS anticipated would be within four to six weeks. Eight weeks later, DHS won’t provide information about the individual grants. A Minnesota Data Practices Office Staff told me that “DHS should release the 16 proposals that have been approved by DHS and the organizations receiving the funds.” DHS refuses until all 21 contracts are returned.

Carol Wolfe Frey is the vice president and program manager for the Frey Family Foundation of Minnesota. That foundation is helping to support the coordination of state, county and local efforts to reduce homelessness. Wolfe Frey described DHS as “very frustrating.” She told me in an email, “I wish that we would see a sense of urgency from DHS that matched the level of our housing crisis in MN.”

The 2019 Legislature responded to many who urged immediate action to help homeless youth, families and individuals. Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka and chair of the Minnesota Senate committee that discussed the $3 million recommendation, credits the Minnesota House with initiating the legislation. He told me, “There’s bipartisan agreement to help homeless Minnesotans find stable housing and, whenever possible, get good jobs.” Abeler calls DHS “habitually slow.”

The need for emergency shelter has been documented by Minnesota government officials and researchers with currently and formerly homeless people. They produced a May 2019 report: “Responding Effectively as a Region to Unsheltered Homeless in the Twin Cities Metro Area.”

They urged that the state to “develop budgets and plans for creating a net increase of 300-600 person capacity in housing focused crisis, navigation, medical respite and housing stabilization beds.” The report cited the $3 million appropriation as a source for some of this.

Tikki Brown, a DHS official, told me on Sept. 25 that some of the money will be spent in Greater Minnesota for both outreach and 96 additional shelter spaces. That’s modest progress.

She reported that none of the proposals DHS received to help metro area homeless included expanding shelter beds (despite the May 2019 research mentioned earlier). Seems to me that this reflects a lack of clarity from DHS about urgent needs. More staffing is valuable. But without shelter, children and families will freeze.

Recently, another DHS official tried to tell me what I could and could not ask the recently appointed DHS Commissioner Jodi Harpstead. I explained that the commissioner could decide what she would answer. But, like any other Minnesotan, I have the right to ask questions that I think appropriate. I could write a column just about frustrations of trying to get information since July from DHS.

Nevertheless, there is hope. Commissioner Harpstead told me on Sept. 25 that she would “look into” some concerns I shared. Also, $300,000 of the $3 million apparently hasn’t yet been completely committed. Hopefully some of that will go to meeting what Simmons and Song-Brave agree are immediate needs of emergency shelter in the metro area.  — Joe Nathan, (Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org).

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