Forces join to battle homelessness
Campaign launch is May 14 at Mary, Mother of the Church
Jean MacFarland of Burnsville has been helping people in need find homes for 35 years.
MacFarland and her late husband, Tom, were foster parents for Dakota County. In the early 1990s Jean was director of the Lewis House women’s and family shelter.
Today MacFarland chairs the board of the 125-congregation Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing.
For all the attention focused on homelessness over the years – including in relatively prosperous Dakota County, once thought immune to it – MacFarland says there’s never been a better time to attack the problem.
Her optimism stems from campaigns unfolding statewide under the Heading Home Minnesota banner. Locally, the Heading Home Dakota campaign will be launched at a public forum on May 14 at 6:30 p.m. at Mary, Mother of the Church in Burnsville.
“What really excites me about Heading Home Dakota is that this is a communitywide effort, a collaborative, bringing people together to work on (hopelessness),” MacFarland said. “I wouldn’t say that I’ve seen any of that. Organizations may partner together on a project, but this is all sectors in the community really working together on it.”
Heading Home Minnesota is a public-private partnership working to end homelessness. It includes individual campaigns in eight counties and in six regions blanketing Minnesota.
Nationally, more than 250 plans have been developed – the result of a Bush administration push to bring community resources to bear, said Eric Grumdahl, housing manager for Dakota County Social Services.
The ultimate goal: End homelessness in 10 years, Grumdahl said.
“It’s an ambitious goal,” he said. “It will require a lot of work.”
Dakota County government – including the county’s housing and redevelopment agency — are on board. Some 60 parties to the effort include local government agencies, churches and faith-based groups and long-standing housing advocates such as MICAH and the Coalition for Affordable Transitional Housing, a group of congregations that provides six units of transitional housing in Dakota County.
How widespread is homelessness in the county?
“We don’t have significant numbers sleeping on the streets and such,” MacFarland said. But there’s more to it.
The county’s annual “point-in-time” count, measured this year on Jan. 25, showed 1,013 Dakota County residents to be homeless.
That’s a 20 percent increase from the 2011 count of 841, although the county added two categories to the 2012 count: people living in an apartment or home with the utilities shut off (66) and people in a treatment facility or hospital (32). The increase is 9 percent if those categories are excluded.
A number of people moving out of troubled Country Village Apartments in Burnsville, whose rental license has since been revoked, contributed to the 20 percent increase, Grumdahl noted.
Under the federal definition of homelessness, Dakota County had only 353 homeless people on Jan. 25. The Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t count people who are doubling up or in similarly precarious arrangements as homeless.
Even under the narrower federal definition, Dakota County’s homeless count was 17 percent higher than the 2011 count of 302.
Statewide, the number of people without permanent shelter rose 25 percent from October 2006 to October 2009, according to the Wilder Foundation, which takes a county every three years.
On any given night, there may be 13,000 homeless Minnesotans, not counting people doubling up or living temporarily with family or friends, Wilder estimates.
Homelessness is a family problem. Dakota County’s 2011 count showed that 46 percent of homeless people sheltered in emergency or transitional housing were children under 18 accompanied by parents.
“By measures of our need, Dakota County’s homeless population has grown,” Grumdahl said.
“We’re not getting a handle on the situation,” MacFarland said.
Meanwhile, the vacancy rate for rental housing in Dakota County is 3.4 percent, the lowest in a decade, Grumdahl said. According to the county’s Community Development Agency, it takes annual income of $49,160 – about $24 an hour – to afford the average three-bedroom apartment in Dakota County.
“The low availability of affordable, sustainable housing is one of the most substantial challenges in ending homelessness,” Grumdahl said.
In an extensive report, Heading Home Dakota sets out goals and two dozen strategies for preventing homelessness, ensuring an adequate supply of housing, boosting outreach to the homeless, improving services and systems for addressing homelessness, and engaging the public in fighting the problem.
The work will take money – nearly $42 million over five years, Heading Home Dakota estimates. Nearly 80 percent of that is for brick-and-mortar construction, renovation and preservation of affordable housing.
The campaign, under the direction of its lead agency, the Affordable Housing Coalition, is eyeing federal and state grants, county and city funds and private funding.
“My heart is in housing,” MacFarland said. “It’s so basic to the well-being of children and families and individuals.”
The forum on homelessness on Monday, May 14, will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the lower level of Mary, Mother of the Church, 3333 Cliff Road, Burnsville.
The Heading Home Dakota Plan and Implementation Guide is posted on the Dakota County website at www.co.dakota.mn.us/HealthFamily/Reports/affordablehousing.htm.