The recent Star Tribune article about the dramatic rise in suburban homelessness should come as no surprise to those paying attention to the economic downturn’s ripple effects. Washington County’s homeless population has quadrupled in four years to reach 381 people on a recent January night. In Dakota County, the need has risen 20 percent in the past year alone. Homelessness extends far beyond the suburbs, too. Wilder Research’s 2009 statewide homeless survey found that 32 percent of homeless adults live outside of the metro area (up from 20 percent in 1991).
The challenges of homelessness are only exacerbated when living outside of the core cities. Transportation is a major barrier to accessing the limited range of available shelters and services. Most folks experiencing homelessness can’t afford a safe, reliable vehicle and gas to keep it running. For many in need the nearest shelter might be 50 miles away. Even if a person can secure a bed there and get herself to the shelter, now she is 50 miles from her own community: work, school, church, friends and family. What if that shelter is full? What if its program is not a good fit for her needs? The other options are even further away.
Similarly, accessing free medical clinics, workforce centers, educational opportunities, mental or chemical health treatment, or other needed services can be really difficult. Urban services are accessible by bike, bus, or foot and even that poses a challenge to many. The housing organization at which I work in Minneapolis is six blocks from an Opportunity Center that offers day shelter and services. Those six blocks feel like an enormous trek to our many clients with mobility-limiting health conditions.
When needed services are distant and full, people find dangerous and inhumane ways to survive. They might sleep out in the woods, in a vacant building, or in their broken-down car. They might hold off on medical treatment until a minor ailment becomes life-threatening (and then requires an expensive ambulance trip to the ER).
Suburban and rural homelessness is often invisible and tough to solve. We can start, however, by offering affordable housing, public transportation, and supportive services in as many communities as possible in order to keep people in their homes and neighborhoods.