Q: What does a homeless person look like?
A: They look just like other Minnesotans.
Stereotypes that portray all homeless people as scruffy adult males living on street corners are hopelessly inaccurate.
Many homeless people are young, and an increasing number are children and families.
According to the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation’s statewide homelessness study, which has been completed every three years since 1991, the number of homeless Minnesotans is growing.
The study reported 3,079 homeless people the first year. The total had grown to 10,214 by 2012.
Homelessness in the state increased by 27 percent from 2009 to 2012.
Nearly half (46 percent) of the homeless people in Minnesota are age 21 or younger. Of these, 3,546 were children with their parents. Of these children, 51 percent are age 5 or younger.
So much for that stereotype of the guy on the street.
Older adults (those 55 and older) make up a relatively small percentage of the homeless population, but that group showed the largest increase (48 percent) from 2009 to 2012.
On any given night, it is estimated there are 14,057 homeless people in the state.
It is estimated that at least 40,000 Minnesotans experience homelessness at some point over the course of a year.
Just as people who use services such as emergency food shelves may be our friends, relatives, or neighbors (and we might never know this, because they are unlikely to tell us), people who are homeless may be people we know or encounter in our communities.
Most homeless people in Minnesota (72 percent) have had contact with a family member within the past month.
Only 14 percent report it has been a year or more since they had contact with their family.
About 29 percent of the homeless adults in the 2012 study reported their current episode of homelessness was their first.
The number of young homeless people is especially troubling.
When the Wilder study began, few homeless adults had first experienced homelessness as children. Today, nearly 25 percent of homeless adults report their first experience of homelessness occurred when they were children.
Reading about homelessness likely makes us uncomfortable and it should.
We profess to be and most of the time we are a compassionate society. We should find it unacceptable for our fellow Minnesotans to live like this.
No one wants to be homeless, so why are the numbers increasing?
The most common reasons people gave for leaving their last “regular” housing include inability to afford rent or house payment (38 percent); lost job or had hours cut (32 percent); evicted or lease not renewed (29 percent); breakup with spouse or partner (23 percent); problems getting along with people they lived with (23 percent); and drinking/drug problems (17 percent).
Violence is a fact of life for homeless Minnesotans. The Wilder study notes 19 percent of homeless adults in the state report being physically or sexually assaulted while they were homeless, and 11 percent of homeless adults have had to seek health care due to injuries or illness resulting from violence within the past year.
According to the Wilder study, the cost of housing is the most significant reason people have lost their housing. It can also prevent those who have lost their housing from finding new housing.
Even for those who are working full time, factors such as credit problems, lack of money for deposits, and low wages can be obstacles to finding housing.
Education is also a factor.
Even though federal law requires school districts to provide access to free and appropriate public education, students in those circumstances face obstacles.
The McKinney-Vento Act defines homeless children as those who “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence.”
These students might be sofa surfing (sleeping on the couches of a succession of friends), or living in motels, shelters, transitional housing, cars, or other areas not ideal for human habitation.
There are many challenges for students under the best of circumstances, but finding quiet places to study and finding resources for projects are even more difficult for homeless students. This does not bode well for their future.
Nineteen percent of homeless adults age 25 or older do not have a high school diploma or GED, more than three times the percentage for all Minnesotans in the same age group.
The percentage of homeless adults who have a high school diploma or GED, but no more, is 44 percent, compared to 27 percent for all Minnesota adults.
Only 37 percent of homeless adults have some college experience, compared to 65 percent for all Minnesota adults.
More than half (56 percent) of the homeless adults in Minnesota are considered long-term homeless.
Of these, 60 percent have a serious mental illness; 54 percent have a chronic health condition; 26 percent have a substance abuse disorder; and 48 percent have a condition that limits the type of work they can do.
There is no single cause of homelessness, nor is there a single solution.
There are programs and services available to homeless Minnesotans, but the problem has continued to grow.
Even if we have not personally experienced homelessness, the problem affects all of us, and it occurs all across the state in urban and rural areas.
Ignoring the problem will not make it go away.
I have included a lot of numbers in this column, but we must remember that behind the numbers are real people. They are our fellow Minnesotans, and I suspect many of them never thought they would one day end up homeless.
I don’t believe most of these people are looking for handouts. I believe they are looking for hope.
Unless there is a path out of homelessness, ensuring education, employment, and housing are attainable for those who are willing to work for them, the problem is likely to get worse.