Homelessness in Dakota County

The number of people without housing rises as  out-of-work residents  struggle to find jobs

First in a series: Starting Over

After struggling with homelessness for much of his adult life, Albert Scott enrolled in a photography program at Dakota County Technical College to widen his career options. (Photo by Jessica Harper)
After struggling with homelessness for much of his adult life, Albert Scott enrolled in a photography program at Dakota County Technical College to widen his career options. (Photo by Jessica Harper)

At age 50, Stephanie lived a comfortable, middle class, suburban life. She held a career in the insurance industry, had a nice apartment in Burnsville and was sending her daughter off to college.

Stephanie (who asked that her last name not be used) never imaged that in four years she would be homeless.

Just as the recession gained momentum in 2008, Stephanie was laid off from her job at an insurance company that specialized in workers compensation claims.

Though she spent 40 hours a week searching, Stephanie struggled to find another full-time job, and took part-time and temporary work.

“I did everything I could but the economy would not have it,” she said. “I never expected that at my age I would be homeless.”

She managed to sustain herself for several years but by 2012 Stephanie lost her home of 26 years.

“It’s the worst thing that has ever happened to me,” she said. “I went through a horrible depression.”

Dakota County Technical College officials say about one in 10 of their students face homelessness. (Photo by Jessica Harper)
Dakota County Technical College officials say about one in 10 of their students face homelessness. (Photo by Jessica Harper)

Since then, Stephanie finds herself sleeping in a different place each night as she couch-hops among friends and family.

Stephanie is among the growing number of people who face homelessness in Dakota County.

Homelessness continues to climb at a fast pace countywide, despite signs of a recovery.

Between 2011 and 2012, homelessness in Dakota County increased 20 percent to 1,022 people, according to a study by the nonprofit Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.

The county’s actual homeless population is likely much higher, said Madeline Kastler, housing resource development specialist for Dakota County.

Dakota County’s Supportive Housing Unit typically receives 6,000 or more referrals and calls each year for assistance from people experiencing homelessness or housing instability, according to county documents.

Dakota County outpaces the statewide trend, which saw a 6 percent increase between 2009 and 2012, reaching 10,214 people.

“I think generally, people in most need will experience recovery last,” Kastler said.

Rising rent

The economy and a lack of affordable housing and transportation are among the contributing factors in the recent rise in homelessness, county officials say.
As growing numbers of people flood the rental market, the cost of rent in Dakota County has risen by $16.68 (1.86 percent) from 2011 to 2012 with the average monthly rent of an efficiency climbing to $635 and a three-bedroom unit to $1,325.

Burnsville has experienced the greatest increase with a $31.59 (3.58 percent) rise in rent between 2011 and 2012.

At the same time, landlords are becoming more selective.

“Those with better credit history and without criminal records are chosen, and others are left out,” Kastler said.

County officials also face the challenge of addressing the different needs of people who temporarily struggle with homelessness versus those who are chronically homeless.

“Some people need temporary financial assistance, while others need ongoing case management to identify the entire picture,” she said. “If we don’t handle the underlying issues, we will see people back at our door.”

Knowing a client’s mental health, chemical dependency or economic issues can be useful in working with a landlord when finding them housing, Kastler said.

Transportation also continues to be an issue for many homeless people in Dakota County, Kastler said.

There are only two emergency homeless shelters in Dakota County: Dakota Woodlands, which serves women and children, and Cochran House in Hastings, which serves single men.

Due to the county’s limited transit system, commuting between one of the shelters and a place of employment can often become a challenge, Kastler said.

Though Stephanie drives to friends and family members’ homes and school, she often worries about rising gas prices.

“I sometimes wonder if I will have enough to get back and forth,” she said.

County officials say the addition of the MVTA’s new Red Line on Cedar Avenue may provide some relief, but additional routes will be needed countywide.

Dakota County recently formed a countywide initiative called Heading Home  that enlists the help of government, business and faith communities to address homelessness.

The goal of the 10-year plan is to prevent people from becoming homeless while ending existing homelessness by examining housing, employment and other needs in Dakota County.

A task force is currently studying the scope of homelessness, housing needs among other aspects as part of the plan.

Hope in education

Though she continues her search for a job and stable housing, Stephanie holds out hope. She enrolled at Dakota County Technical College last fall to earn an associate degree in business management and plans to pursue a bachelor’s at St. Mary’s University or Strayer University.

Stephanie soon realized she’s not alone in her struggle.

Albert Scott, who is studying photography at DCTC, has struggled with homelessness off and on for much of his adult life. A welder by trade, Scott most recently found himself homeless after leaving an unstable relationship with the mother of his child.

The 46-year-old initially sought shelter at Dorothy Day in downtown St. Paul.

“It was a nightmare,” he said. “I got my bike stolen and people were always wanting to mess with me. I didn’t feel safe there.”

He left after two weeks and went to Harbor Lights and then Higher Ground in Minneapolis.

Scott said he found temporary work for a short time, but was unable to save enough money for an apartment before the job ended.

By September, he decided to further his education by enrolling in a photography program at DCTC.

But Scott soon struggled with the commute between the shelter in Minneapolis and the Apple Valley campus.

With winter approaching and nowhere to go, Scott moved into his car.

For four months, Scott endured the bitter cold nights in the parking lot of DCTC or nearby businesses.

Every night he worried if he would die of hypothermia with the car turned off or carbon monoxide with it on.

“I think the man upstairs was watching over me,” he said.

Upon hearing of his plight, Stephanie, a volunteer tutor at DCTC, connected Scott with county resources that found him temporary housing in Farmington.

Despite her own hardships, Stephanie dedicates much of her free time to serving others. In addition to helping her fellow students, Stephanie volunteers at her Burnsville church’s food shelf.

“It feels good to help others,” she said. “I really believe that blessings come from serving.”

Stephanie and Scott’s stories are all too common at DCTC’s Apple Valley campus, which sees about one out of every 10 students struggle with homelessness or housing instability, said Lisa Bah, associate dean of business and entrepreneurship at DCTC.

“We usually discover it when a student searches for resources,” Bah said.

School officials often connect students with the county and nonprofit agencies for assistance.

Bah said she and other school officials often see homelessness among older students who lose their jobs.

“Many of them never had to rely on formal education for a job before,” she said. “Now they have to start over again.”