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MN2020 - Tuesday Talk: Did bad policy create homeless crisis?
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Tuesday Talk: Did bad policy create homeless crisis?

January 07, 2014 By Joe Sheeran, Communications Director

When it’s this cold Minnesotans pay particular attention to finding homeless people shelter. Unfortunately, this temporary relief only treats symptoms of a much larger human service crisis that bad public policy created. Back in the early 1980s, the U.S. cut affordable housing funding significantly ($480 billion in today’s dollars by one estimate). Other policies caused a decrease in real wages, increasing poverty. These forces pushed people out of their homes.

Today, between 8 and 9:30, we’re joined by two homeless advocates, Mikkel Beckmen, Director of the Office to End Homelessness in Minneapolis and Hennepin County, and Colleen O’Connor Toberman, Minnesota 2020 Hindsight Fellow.

We can’t rewind the clock, so what can we do to prevent pushing more people on the streets?

What are your thoughts on moving beyond just treating the symptoms of homelessness to more effective solutions?


Post your comments or questions in the box below, scroll down to see the ongoing conversation, and use "refresh" to see new comments.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Marty Rossmann says:

    January 7, 2014 at 8:51 am

    Policies and adequate programs to serve mentally ill people need to be a big part of the solution.

    • Colleen O'Connor Toberman says:

      January 7, 2014 at 9:09 am

      I certainly agree. In their 2012 statewide homelessness study, Wilder Research found that, “60% of long-term homeless adults have a serious mental illness, compared to 49% of other homeless adults.” I’ve often realized that if mental illness (or any other health problem) wasn’t a contributing cause of one’s homelessness, it can certainly be an effect. The stress, lack of sleep, crowded shelter conditions, poor medical care and nutrition, etc. can all lead people to some pretty unwell places, and treating those illnesses while dealing with the above challenges is no easy task.

      By the way, I’d like to give Wilder Research a plug. Their comprehensive statewide survey on homelessness in Minnesota (done every three years) gives us some of the best data in the nation about who’s homeless and what their challenges and assets are. The onus is on all of us to use that information well to help end homelessness. Here’s their most recent study: http://www.wilder.org/Wilder-Research/Research-Areas/Homelessness/Pages/statewide-homeless-study-most-recent-results.aspx

    • nancy sager says:

      January 7, 2014 at 9:13 am

      You are right. Currently, the funding to address both mental health and homlessness are poorly underfunded

  • Colleen O'Connor Toberman says:

    January 7, 2014 at 8:55 am

    Good morning, all. I’m looking forward to our conversation.

  • Mikkel Beckmen says:

    January 7, 2014 at 9:00 am

    Good morning.  I’m looking forward to the conversation.

  • nancy sager says:

    January 7, 2014 at 9:04 am

    Common thought was that it was only the mentally ill who were homeless. Is that still true in today’s economy?

    • Mikkel Beckmen says:

      January 7, 2014 at 9:08 am

      at least half of the people experiencing homelessness are kids under the age of 12 with a parent and for many, especially families, it’s an economic issue.  the reality is that homelessness is a symptom of lack of purchasing power in today’s housing market.  homelessness happens most often to households that earn less than $15,000 annually.  the combination of lack of internvention in the housing market by the federal government and not enough affordable housing units is the leading cause.

      • nancy sager says:

        January 7, 2014 at 9:15 am

        What this can do to the family unit is devastating.

      • Lee Egerstrom says:

        January 7, 2014 at 9:17 am

        You are so right, Mikkel. I believe Minnesota school districts routinely report knowing of at least 10,000 homeless school children on any given night.

  • Lee Egerstrom says:

    January 7, 2014 at 9:10 am

    Broadly, it seems to me, homelessness is an “effect” resulting from the “cause,” severe, widespread poverty. The premise of this discussion seems to be right on. Bad public policy for the past 30 years has institutionalized poverty and led to greater inequality while we have inadequate programs to deal with the causes and effects.

  • Joe says:

    January 7, 2014 at 9:12 am

    Mikkel, perhaps a good way to kick off this conversation is telling us a little about how we got here. You said that this was a policy-made crisis, and that prior to HUD defunding, there was actually a surplus of public housing units. Will you elaborate on that for our readers?

    • Mikkel Beckmen says:

      January 7, 2014 at 9:19 am

      Sure Joe -
      the federal government started intervening in the housing market during the Great Depression and for decades, built public housing, provided rental assistance for low-income households and had housing policies that supported the creation of housing for poor people.  the fedreral budgets of the early 80’s marked an abrupt departure from the past and the there was a massive dis-investment in urban America which included huge cuts to housing programs.  One of the results was that over time we gone from having more affordable units than households that needed them in the 70’s to today’s reality-over 12 million poor households competing for between 5-6 million units.
      it’s interesting that rural homelessness really took off after 1993 when the Clinton Administration eliminated the Section 515 housing program which used to build thousands of rental units in rural America.

      • Colleen O'Connor Toberman says:

        January 7, 2014 at 9:24 am

        I think it’s easy to assume that we’ve always had homelessness, so we just have to accept it. But as Mikkel points out, that’s not the case. Today’s homelessness has very direct ties to policies and budget cuts, particularly in the 1980s, along with shrinking wages and growing income inequality. In the early 1980s Minneapolis went from having zero shelters to having about 15, all within a few short years.

  • Lori Sturdevant says:

    January 7, 2014 at 9:26 am

    I’ve been thinking lately that Minnesota has two homelessness crises, the economic one and the mental illness/chemical dependency one. We’ve made progress against the latter even as the former has worsened. Is that analysis close to correct, and if it is, does the state need different strategies for the two kinds of homelessness?

    • Mikkel Beckmen says:

      January 7, 2014 at 9:36 am

      That’s would be a good approach Lori.
      Supporting local policies at the County level that promote “Housing First” as a strategy for people with disabilities who have been homeless for long periods of time is important.  all people can have housing success, even daily drug users and people with serious mental illness, with the right support and housing options, and if we de-couple housing and support services.  Here in Hennepin County, we have been able to move 1,000 single adults who meet the definition of long-term homeless into their own apartments.
      Giving renters with low incomes more purchasing power would go along way towards stabilizing them in housing.  We do this for home owners by allowing mortgage intererest deductions and some property tax limits. 

      • Mary Turck says:

        January 7, 2014 at 9:43 am

        Not sure I understand why de-coupling housing and support services is a good idea. It seems like combining housing and support services would make more sense.

        • Mikkel Beckmen says:

          January 7, 2014 at 9:46 am

          by de-coupling i mean not mandating that people be forced to accept services they do not choose in order to be offered housing.  It used to be more common to tell people that they could get housing if they accepted treatment for something or were forced to participate in things they did not want. 
          A preferred practice, based on the concept that housing is a human right, is to offer housing first, then if a person chooses, to provide support that they choose.

      • Colleen O'Connor Toberman says:

        January 7, 2014 at 9:43 am

        It’s worth noting that the nation’s single largest housing support program is the tax break we give mortgage holders. We spend far more on that than on public housing, shelter, or other housing programs.

    • Lee Egerstrom says:

      January 7, 2014 at 9:38 am

      Again, Lori, you’ve got it right. On the economic side, we’ve got to raise the minimum wage in Minnesota to start lifting the working poor out of poverty and make housing more affordable.

    • Colleen O'Connor Toberman says:

      January 7, 2014 at 9:41 am

      I personally see it a little more like a continuum of needs. On one end you have people whose only need is an affordable place to live; they have everything else they need to be stable and healthy. On the other end are people who have other needs besides just housing: they also have challenges with health, employment, family, etc. While simply having a home won’t necessarily resolve all of these needs, it’s a lot easier to address them once someone is out of the daily crisis and chaos of homelessness. Stability is enormously important.

      This “continuum” is why I think it’s so important that we offer a variety of affordable housing opportunities. We need options like Habitat for Humanity homes, for people who have a lot of stability and just lack decent housing. We need housing with 24-hour support services, for those with struggles. And we need varying levels of supportive housing in between. In terms of state strategy, we need investment in both housing infrastructure (the buildings themselves) and the services and economic supports to help people in those buildings be stable and successful.

    • Will Rolf says:

      January 7, 2014 at 9:48 am

      Increased funding for low income housing continues the cycle of dependency and subsidizes low wage employers.  The solution needs to be on the income side.  Pay a living wage and people can afford to live.  Repeal of Taft-Hartley to make it easier to unionize low wage work places would make a huge difference.  If we had a political party that supported private sector unions that would help too.

  • John Van Hecke says:

    January 7, 2014 at 9:37 am


    Are housing vouchers meeting need?

    • Mikkel Beckmen says:

      January 7, 2014 at 9:42 am

      Housing vouchers are a great tool but there have not been any new vouchers issued for a long time as congress has not raised additional funding for years. at the state level, rental assistance amounts have also been flat.  This is why we see closed waiting lists and 2-6 year waits.

      One of the tools counties have is a state program that provides short-term rental assistance (1-6 months) for families in shelter that is used to help families exit shelter.  Typically for 75% of families that use this resource to leave shelter do not return.  the families that do return to shelter are typically younger (women under 25) or families with several vulnerabilities.

  • Lee Egerstrom says:

    January 7, 2014 at 9:49 am

    At some point, would Mikkel or Colleen comment on the mix of new housing construction needed in the Twin Cities or statewide - single family homes and multi-family units - to bring supply-demand pressures back in balance and make rents more affordable? Different public policies would be needed to achieve these goals.

    • Mikkel Beckmen says:

      January 7, 2014 at 9:59 am

      the 10-year plan to end homelessness in Hennepin County, “Heading Home Hennepin”, calls for the creation of 5,000 housing opportunities for extemely low-income households, 60% of those using tenant-based rental assistance and 40% the construction of new housing units.  We are ahead of these goals for single adults, but behind for families by 1,800 units right now.  The cost of developing family units is incredibly high, especially land costs, and where the land is affordable there are political barriers related to policies on de-concentration of poverty.
      Policies that encourage new partnerships that include the donation of land to spur production as well as looking at housing development in Suburban areas along transit cooridors are good.  The Met Council has a great document on their website related to housign development in the metro area.  i would encourage everyone to read it.

  • Lori Sturdevant says:

    January 7, 2014 at 9:55 am

    I’d like to know more about what housing advocates are seeking from the 2014 Legislature. A big bonding request is in the works. How would that money be spent? And what’s the case for using state bonding for this purpose? Thanks in advance!

    • Mikkel Beckmen says:

      January 7, 2014 at 10:11 am

      yes, a very big request - $100 million - which I think is more than double any previous request.  I believe it will be used for a mix of preservastion/rehab of existing deteriorating housing and the development of new housing around the State.
      Housing is a part of the infrastructure of the state and I think developers of affordable housing and local governments would point out that there are very few tools to develop housing.  A typical supportive housing or very low-income housing development can take 4-6 years to bring online because you have to string together multiple funding sources to do it.  Using bonding dollars provides a single source of funds.
      There will also be a big push for a minimum wage increase this session, i believe at least to $9.50/hour, which as has been commented on already here, will bring more purchasing power to low-wage earners.  Because it is a bonding year, funding for homeless programs will be a big push in 2015.

    • Lee Egerstrom says:

      January 7, 2014 at 10:17 am

      Unless Colleen, Mikkel or someone from the various housing groups have info in front of them regarding legislative agendas, here’s a quick synopsis of what the Homes for All alliance will be seeking: $100 million in state bonding authority roughly broken down as $80 million to increase supply of affordable housing and $20 million to rehab public housing. Minnesota Housing would award the funds statewide on a competitive basis.

    • Roy Hallanger says:

      January 7, 2014 at 10:22 am

      I am wondering how many different agencies in the state, cities and counties are spending money on homelessness without actually paying for housing.  For example, the MN Dept of Education spends millions of dollars in order for school districts to comply with the McKinney Vento act by busing homeless students back to their original school.  Is there any way that all the agencies could pool their resources and spend that money on housing instead?

      • Colleen O'Connor Toberman says:

        January 7, 2014 at 10:29 am

        I’d love to see the numbers on that. Mikkel, any idea how much we’re spending on homelessness services?

        Of course, the issue is that we can’t just switch the money from homelessness to housing until we’ve moved people from homelessness to housing, too. Until we develop enough affordable housing and support services to reduce or eliminate the need for shelters, we can’t close the shelters. That interim period might require more investment from all of us, but I’m confident in the long-term savings we’d reap.

      • Mikkel Beckmen says:

        January 7, 2014 at 10:32 am

        I think we all spend a lot of money at every level to “manage” homelessness.  Homelessness is very expensive and while there is a cost to developing housing and rental assistance, having a federal housing policy and the means of creating housing is a much better route.  The removal of hundreds of billions in housing dollars over the past several decades has been caused all other systems to react to the consequences of the lack of housing.

    • Colleen O'Connor Toberman says:

      January 7, 2014 at 10:26 am

      This is a smart investment for the state for several reasons. Among them:
      Some of the bonding money will go to preserving and improving existing affordable housing, which is important to protect the investments we’ve already made in these buildings.
      Homelessness and poverty are costly to the taxpayer, because people in crisis use costly crisis services (a night in shelter costs far more than a night in housing). If we can bring stability to people, we’ll see better outcomes in education, health, etc.
      Housing bonds also leverage a lot of outside investment, because it draws in federal, nonprofit, and private developer dollars. One dollar of state investment into federally-assisted housing secures $5.50 in federal funding.

      My very first article for MN2020 was actually about why affordable housing is a good bonding investment. It was written two years ago; the housing bonds secured in that legislative session are already being put to use across the state to address our housing crisis. If people are interested, the full article is here: http://www.mn2020.org/issues-that-matter/economic-developmenthealth-care/why-housing-is-a-bonding-bill-priority

      • Lori Sturdevant says:

        January 7, 2014 at 10:30 am

        Colleen, you were seeking $40 M that year. What amount was finally authorized, and with what strings attached, if any?

        • Colleen O'Connor Toberman says:

          January 7, 2014 at 10:40 am

          I believe the final amount was $33.5 million. A little bit of that went directly to Tubman for their domestic-violence shelter and housing programs. The rest was given to Minnesota Housing for distribution via a statewide competitive application process.

  • Julie Ackland says:

    January 7, 2014 at 10:49 am

    There are ways to help people that do not cost so much.  Share a home programs should be considered.

    • FRED L says:

      January 7, 2014 at 11:07 am

      are the comments listed here from the people getting services, or people administering the limited funds out there?

    • mar says:

      January 7, 2014 at 2:05 pm

      Some landlords are afraid of renting an older home to young families due to fears of newer regulataions that make the landlord vulnerable.  We need safe housing but does it need to be safer for the tenant than if the home owner lived there?  More and more the landlords are being made responsible for problems that the tenants have caused. Also, a landlord is a landlord and not a social services worker.

  • Andrea Lauer says:

    January 7, 2014 at 11:47 am

    Thank you for bringing this issue for discussion. I heard that two members of the Today show were going to address the issue of homelessness during the upcoming year by giving some shelters a facelift - paint, expanded room for play, etc. This is a laudable effort. What really needs to take place is a conversation about affordable housing, living wage, and generational poverty (education). We will always have some need for shelter and perhaps the focus needs to be on youth and sheltering them safely.
    Andrea Lauer
    .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

  • Joe says:

    January 7, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    From Joe Vene, Beltrami County Commissioner, via email:

    Yes and no.  We (collectively) have not sufficiently probed and identified the root causes of homelessness that would address treatment and substantive issues related to homelessness, such as mental health.  The emergence of shelters for the homeless is a palliative measure, and though necessary, is only a stopgap.

  • Ruth Cain says:

    January 7, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    Since the banks are running the country, we’ll be lucky if we’re not all homeless in a few years.

    • Dan says:

      January 7, 2014 at 12:43 pm

      I do think the wealthy want to be the only property owners in the future and would like to control the housing and rent of others.

  • Dan says:

    January 7, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    I see empty houses all over the place.  Homes that have been in foreclosure for years; older homes that probably are not up to code or would be acceptable by someones measure I am not a learned person in the system as many other people posting on this site.  I am of the opinion that it is more an education, skills, and mental health issue than it is a building issue.  (example: A family loses their housing because a parent “won’t, can’t, doesn’t” take care of her children that pee in the corner of their apartment).  I agree that supports and housing not be essentially tied together in all circumstances.  However I do think that there needs to be like a super supported group home housing complex with daily training for the homeless that provides enterprising work and also works to educate and train skills for employment, home management, home care, repair and construction, executive skills for accessing and utilizing resources, parenting, nutrition, health and wellness including mental health.

    • Colleen O'Connor Toberman says:

      January 7, 2014 at 1:07 pm

      These “super supported” housing programs do exist—Jeremiah Program is one local program that comes to mind. The problem is that there just aren’t enough of them, just as there aren’t enough other housing and service options out there. Waiting lists are often very long, and what are families supposed to do in the meantime?

      And we can’t forget that there are some people who only need a safe, affordable home, and not those intensive services. We need cost-effective options for those folks, too. Habitat for Humanity is one example of an option for people who are living in those substandard and/or unaffordable homes and need something decent, but otherwise have stability in their lives. But in the Twin Cities at least, only one in ten qualified Habitat applicants is actually offered a home… the need is that high.

      These service and housing providers aren’t going to fill those massive gaps on their own. We need higher-level investments and policy changes if we’re ever going to make serious progress to end homelessness.

      • Dan says:

        January 7, 2014 at 4:20 pm

        Here is a link to a Star Tribune article on Jeremiah Program   http://www.startribune.com/local/224337801.html 
        I am grateful to learn of this program.  Yet I am saddened that it seems to be only for single mothers.  Are there programs that help men step up and be responsible for their children and families? 

        My observations over recent years it seems that girls and young women are encouraged to do more and more while many boys and young men are becoming discouraged and achieving less and less.

        • Colleen O'Connor Toberman says:

          January 7, 2014 at 4:30 pm

          EMERGE is one father/child supportive housing program in Minneapolis that comes to mind for me. I know there are others, as well.

    • mar says:

      January 7, 2014 at 2:07 pm

      Super supported housing is an experiment worth working with. I believe Moorhead has experimented with this and there is a waiting list to get into it.

  • Yi Li You says:

    February 1, 2014 at 10:09 am

    Homeless issue has been always the question in my mind. When I drive around Mpls area, I saw some people holding signs of “homeless”.

    I am wondering if they have been to county office to seek for any financial assistance: health care, food support and cash assistance?
    Do most of them have habit of drinking, or other mental illness?

    If so, I feel those homeless shelter staff should have mandatory counseling sessions for these homeless clients. Counties should increase funding to these shelters for these counseling programs. We need to help these homeless people to stand up on their own.
    Job coach them for certain job skills. Training them to manage their own money.
    Encourage them to take GED class if they don’t have high school diploma.
    For seniors who are homeless, county offices should refer them to public housing or assisted living housing.

    Yi Li You, LSW