Minnesota Homeless Study resumes after 5 years

Published 5:29 pm Friday, October 27, 2023

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By Nina Moini

Dozens of face-to-face conversations hummed along at once in the common spaces of Catholic Charities Higher Ground St. Paul shelter Thursday night.

Wendy Underwood, Twin Cities Catholic Charities’ chief engagement officer, understood the magnitude of participation it takes from almost every shelter and outreach service provider across the state to get the most accurate results for the Minnesota Homeless Study.

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“Oh my gosh, and this is happening all across the state,” Underwood said as she looked out over a room of people paired up for private interviews.

Based on estimates from prior studies, about 1,000 volunteers would be interviewing at least 4,000 people.  The volunteers met with people experiencing homelessness at emergency shelters, domestic violence shelters, transitional housing programs, social service agencies, encampments and transit stations across the state.

Wilder Research’s first Minnesota Homeless Study was published in 1991, when the state surveyed around 3,000 people experiencing homelessness. The study happened every three years through 2018, when the state counted more than 11,000 people in one night. The pandemic delayed the next homeless study until now.

“It’s so important for people who are not experiencing homelessness to appreciate how every single person’s story is different,” Underwood said.

And yet, she says it’s many of the same social and economic systems and challenges that move a person into homelessness.

Anyone can be trained to volunteer for the Minnesota Homeless Study.

Volunteers talked to each person they were assigned for about 45 minutes. They talked about their experiences and the circumstances that contributed to their homelessness using a uniform set of questions. St. Paul resident Sean Fee heard about the opportunity to volunteer from his neighbor. He said he sees more and more people asking for help at stop lights across the city, and wanted to do something to help.

“Just a conversation gives a person so much dignity, you know?” Fee said.

The information people share helps to show trends over time and address barriers to obtaining safe and stable housing. From there, the survey results and analysis help policymakers decide how to put resources toward possible solutions.

After the latest study was delayed and other effects of the pandemic, there is a greater need than ever for this single-night snapshot of the situation, said  Minnesota Homeless Study co-director Michelle Decker Gerrard.

“I don’t know what we’re going to run into,” Decker Gerrard said.

The most recent 2018 Minnesota Homeless Study counted 11,371 people experiencing homelessness across the state. The first count in 1991 had 3,000 people. In 2018, the numbers showed a concerning uptick of homelessness statewide by 10 percent from 2015 and 2018. Among the most concerning 2018 findings, over age 55 adult homelessness in Minnesota increased 25 percent  from 2015 to 2018.

Lee McFaggan is among the older adults currently experiencing homelessness.

The 51-year-old former mechanic has mobility challenges and has been staying at the Catholic Charities Dorothy Day campus in St. Paul for a few months.

“I’m limited to what I can lift and carry around,” McFaggan said. “There are people who are physically unable to provide for themselves so that they can move forward in life, and they really do need the help.”

Over the pandemic years, concerns have also grown around a lack of affordable housing, an uptick in people sleeping outside or in tents, family shelters reaching capacity after the eviction moratoriums lifted, and the worsening opioid crisis. This year,  the homeless study added a survey question about if an individual interviewed has lived through an opioid overdose.

Decker Gerrard said the survey also added another now question with which they decided intentionally to save for the last question.

“What helps you get by?” Decker Gerrard said. “Because this population is incredibly resilient, we want to emphasize that.”

The first results from the Minnesota Homeless Study will be released in March.