Today [May 1], Minneapolis’ two winter shelters will close for the season. This has become an annual ritual for the past few years, ever since two churches opened temporary winter shelters to offer supplemental beds for the rising homeless population. These two shelters house over 100 people a night, who will now find themselves out in the still-chilly spring without other options.
Our first impulse might be to solve this problem by keeping these shelters open year round, but I have mixed feelings about opening more homeless shelters. Obviously, I want everyone to have a safe place to sleep, eat, and connect to services. I want shelters that are accessible to every community across the state and offer sufficient space for everyone in need. It’s not humane to turn someone away because there’s no room at the inn.
But when we open more shelters, we risk accepting “more shelters” as the way things have to be. We risk letting them become a permanent fixture in the community, rather than a temporary response. (Don’t believe me? Three Minneapolis shelters that opened as “temporary winter shelters” over 30 years ago are still operating today, open year-round and always at capacity.)
Shelters are an important stop along the way for someone in crisis. We may always need a safe place for people to land when their lives are upended and they find themselves homeless. The problem is that many of our shelters are filled with people who have been homeless for months or years. They don’t need yet another night in a shelter. They need permanent, stable homes. And what any shelter case worker will tell you is that there just aren’t enough permanent, stable homes out there, at least not ones affordable to someone with limited or no income.
That’s why the Legislature’s bonding bill offers such an important opportunity to invest in affordable housing. It allows us to use fewer band-aids on our homelessness crisis and offers a more permanent solution: housing. If legislature approves the requested $100 million in affordable housing investment, it would help create at least 5,000 housing units that are affordable and high-quality. It would allow communities to offer different levels of supportive services to respond to different needs. We can create housing for homeless youth, families, and adults.
Housing is not only the more humane solution, but it’s actually more cost-effective. Crisis shelters are a really costly way to provide housing, because when people face crisis they struggle in other ways that can require emergency room care, police interventions, or substance abuse resources. The stability of an affordable home ends the crisis and lets people focus on long-term wellness.
We know that housing helps people live stable, healthy, productive lives. We know that housing offers an excellent return on investment along multiple bottom lines. We know what we need to do: invest $100 million for housing in this year’s bonding bill. The question, Minnesota, is… will we do it?