Midwinter homeless (under)count in Minnesota


On a recent morning, Christopher Scott sat on the ground outside Harbor Light, a homeless shelter in downtown Minneapolis, contemplating the series of events that led to him joining the growing ranks of homeless in Minnesota.

For about a year, Scott, 27, was barely scraping by, earning minimum wage working part-time at McDonald’s. He lived with his girlfriend, who worked at White Castle, in a $450 a month apartment in north Minneapolis. When the landlord raised the rent to $750, the couple could not afford the apartment and became homeless. Now Scott spends his days shuttling between homeless shelters in St. Paul and Minneapolis, often standing outside in freezing weather for several hours waiting for shelters to open.

“It’s cold walking the streets,” he said. To make matters worse, Scott lost his job two weeks ago and plans to apply for welfare, which will give him only $203 a month.

Scott was one of thousands of Minnesotans counted in last week’s survey of the homeless in Minnesota. Social service providers fanned out across the state, putting in long hours as part of a complicated effort to count the increasing number of homeless people for a biennial survey to secure U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funding.

Housing advocates from Willmar to St. Paul complained about the difficulty of conducting such a survey in the middle of winter. “It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” said Monica Nilsson, director of outreach for St. Stephen’s Human Services and organizer of the Minneapolis count. Advocates argue that conducting a count in the middle of winter results in misleadingly low numbers and distorts the public perception of the homeless crisis.

An earlier study showed that the number of people staying at Twin Cities’ shelters increased sixty percent in 2008. About 7,300 Minnesotans were counted as homeless in the last HUD-mandated count in January 2007. The results from last week’s survey will be released within the next few months.

This year, to avoid duplicate counting, Minnesota providers chose to narrow down the count to one night, January 28th. Some agencies went out on Wednesday night to count the homeless, but most waited until later in the week and interviewed people about where they stayed on the 28th. Regional planning groups, calling Continuums of Care, coordinated the count and include the results in applications for HUD funding.

While counting people like Scott, who are staying at Twin Cities shelters, is relatively straightforward, counting unsheltered people–those living in abandoned buildings, under bridges, in their car, or other locations–poses an extreme challenge. Housing advocates in southwestern Minnesota say that the problem is even worse in rural areas, where no shelters exist and many people are living in precarious situations, including with abusive partners, to avoid living on the street.

Advocates also say that when the temperature drops, people who would normally be staying under a bridge or in a public park seek temporary shelter from a friend or family member. Under the federal definition, only those living in a shelter or in an uninhabitable place, like inside a car, are counted as homeless. In other words, when the weather’s warmer, the homeless are easier to find and more of them meet the federal definition of homelessness. Nilsson expects to locate less than a hundred unsheltered homeless people in Minneapolis for this year’s count, which she says represents only a fraction of the actual people of unsheltered Minneapolis residents.

In both Hennepin and Ramsey counties, coordinators enlisted the help of anyone they could think of who might encounter the unsheltered homeless: bus drivers, police, hospital social workers, street outreach providers, detox workers, and others.

At Loaves and Fishes, a soup kitchen located in the basement of River of Life church in North Minneapolis, the St. Stephen’s Street Outreach Team set up a table Thursday night, in the hopes of finding homeless people who stopped by the church for dinner. A pregnant 19-year-old woman living in an abandoned building and a middle-aged man sleeping in a garage were among the five people counted at that location. Several people who stopped by tried to be helpful. “I know a couple of them who live by the river that didn’t show up tonight,” offered one man.

A few miles away, St. Stephen’s workers stationed at Harbor Light spent thirteen hours trying to locate homeless people who did not stay at the shelter the previous night and were therefore uncounted. The scene was chaotic. A large group of mostly African American men crowded into the Salvation Army chapel waiting to secure a small mat on the ground for the night. Tensions ran high. During the wait, a security guard had to intervene to break up a fight and to help catch an elderly man who fainted while standing in line.

Despite these time-consuming efforts, advocates say the homeless will be greatly undercounted. “The reality is that people who are out and don’t want to come in for services are very hard to identify. They pick their spots based on the unlikelihood that they’ll be found,” said Jim Anderson, a Ramsey County planning specialist for low-income and homeless services and the county’s Continuum of Care coordinator. Anderson also expressed concern about undercounting homeless people who avoid crowded shelters and choose to temporarily sleep at a friend’s house when the weather drops below zero. In warmer weather, Anderson said, these people would be living on the streets and would be counted as homeless, leading to a more accurate count.

Meanwhile, social service providers in rural Minnesota were faced with a unique set of challenges. Since southwestern Minnesota does not have any homeless shelters, providers scrambled to track down people on waiting lists for housing and others in the community they have previously identified as homeless. Many rural homeless people are embarrassed about their situation and will deny being homeless, said Jennifer Schuller, the Continuum of Care coordinator for southwestern Minnesota. “It’s a pride thing,” Schuller said. “And it’s understandable. I wouldn’t want to have to identify myself that way either.” In rural areas, the homeless are forced to be more creative, seeking out twenty-four hour laundromats and all-night restaurants for shelter, Schuller said.

In 2007, citing the difficulty of securing an accurate count during the winter months, Minnesota Housing, a state-run affordable housing agency, requested that HUD allow Minnesota to conduct the count in October to coincide with a more comprehensive count conducted by the Wilder Foundation. This request was denied. “I really think that [HUD] selected January to deliberately undercount,” said Anderson. “They want to be able to show that what they’re doing is making a difference. I don’t know why otherwise they would require this to be done in January.” A spokesperson for Minnesota Housing stated the agency declined to speculate on the reason for HUD’s refusal.

Some housing advocates worry that a lower count could jeopardize federal funding, a claim HUD spokesperson Brian Sullivan vigorously denies. Sullivan states that funding is not tied to specific numbers, but rather to a variety of factors, including the statistical reliability of the survey itself.

Sullivan acknowledged that many regions around the country have requested that the homeless count be moved to a warmer month. However, Sullivan argues that the exact date of the count is irrelevant because the purpose of the survey is to track trends. “Provided you do this at the same time of year with the same methodologies, if you use this you can begin to see patterns emerge,” he said.

Yet Sullivan also boasted of HUD’s flexibility in working with different regions and cited a recent decision to allow Tampa, Florida to delay their count due to the Super Bowl as an example of the agency’s willingness to adjust to localized concerns. Sullivan stated an exception was also granted to New York City several years ago due to a massive blizzard.

Sullivan denied that HUD deliberately intends to undercount the homeless. “Everybody wants honest data because anything less is meaningless. Any suggestion to the contrary is cynical and doesn’t at all reflect the people I know and work with every single day, people that these advocates haven’t met a day in their lives.”

Housing advocates say that regardless of any findings from this year’s count, they expect that the economic recession will increase the number of homeless. Advocates stress that low-wage workers could be hit the hardest, as middle-class people lose their skilled jobs and enter into the low-wage service industry. More competition means fewer jobs to go around. As Nilsson puts it, “Newspaper boys aren’t boys anymore. They’re adults who need help paying the mortgage.”

As for Scott, he isn’t optimistic about his chance of securing housing or finding a job. Even if he found full-time work at minimum wage, he would still only earn a little over $1,000 a month before taxes, in a city where the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $778 a month. “I may have been counted,” Scott said, “but that doesn’t mean the government thinks I count.”

Madeleine Baran is a freelance journalist, specializing in labor and poverty issues. Her articles have appeared in The New York Daily News, Dollars & Sense, Clamor, The New Standard, and other publications.