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Advocates call for funding increase to address rise in MN homeless population

Wendy Underwood, vice president of advocacy with Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, testifies March 11 before the House Health and Human Services Finance Division on HF1805, sponsored by Rep. Hunter Cantrell, left. Photo by Paul Battaglia

Across the state, emergency shelters are strained to the breaking point and they need state support, advocates told the House Health and Human Services Finance Division Wednesday.

HF1805, sponsored by Rep. Hunter Cantrell (DFL-Savage), would appropriate $7.5 million in fiscal year 2021 for emergency services grants to provide essential services to homeless people. It would also add the appropriation to the base, ensuring continued funding.

It was held over as amended for possible inclusion in a supplemental budget bill. There is no Senate companion.

The issue of homelessness “desperately needs our attention, not only during the winter months, but year-round,” Cantrell said.

Unsheltered homelessness in Minnesota has increased by 62% since 2015. In the last decade, the Twin Cities’ unsheltered population alone has increased by 136%, he said.

Emergency services grants are one of the few flexible sources of public funding available to support emergency shelters, but that funding is limited, said Wendy Underwood, vice president of social justice advocacy and engagement for Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Emergency services grants discussed 3/11/20

In 2019, the Legislature provided a one-time infusion of $3 million over two years in addition to $1.7 million already appropriated over the biennium, divided between 25 organizations statewide, she said.

Programs, like Catholic Charities, rely almost entirely on private funding sources and program reserves, but those resources can only stretch so far, Underwood said.

“Just like hospitals and nursing facilities, shelters must be seen as critical community infrastructure,” she said. “Minnesota will not overcome its homeless crisis without increased funding.”

The appropriation would allow for long-term planning and resources to help unsheltered people find long-term housing, which is key to addressing the crisis, said Sheila Kiscaden, testifying as a housing and homelessness advocate and not in her capacity as an Olmsted County Commissioner.

“How long and how much can we rely on philanthropy alone?” she asked. “And isn’t this a public health, public concern for the state of Minnesota?”

Underwood commended the work that the Legislature is doing on addressing housing shortages across the state, especially naturally occurring affordable housing, but stressed the importance of maintaining a safety net.

“We have invested a lot of money in this over several sessions, and quite frankly, not enough,” said Rep. Rena Moran (DFL-St. Paul). “$7.5 (million) is a gentle ask, but it needs to be so much more than that.”

Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen (R-Glencoe) asked if government systems could be made more efficient and simpler, both for service providers to navigate and to make sure as much money as possible goes to the people who need it.

The division chair, Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL-Rochester), said that the question couldn’t be answered immediately, but it was worth addressing in the future.

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