HELPING THE HOMELESS
(Author’s note: This was originally written about homelessness in Duluth, Minnesota. The statistics may differ but the problems AND SOLUTIONS are similar in Wisconsin and across the country.)
“A lot of us are one paycheck away, and there’s just a variety of folks that can experience homelessness. It’s not just a certain group of people, and it’s really important we stop characterizing people and just start helping them.” Shelly Bruecken, member of the Loaves and Fishes community and homeless advocate in Duluth.
Homelessness continues to be a problem all over the country. Last week homeless advocates put up tents outside Duluth city hall to bring attention to the growing number of people sleeping on the streets. They wanted to pressure the city and county to do more to help the homeless before winter. With temperatures already below normal they’re pushing four specific actions:
- An immediate end to evictions from homeless camps until warming centers open
- Fund all existing warming centers to be open 24 hours per day
- Provide 24-hour access to hygiene facilities year round
- Commit to a multi-milliondollar annual investment in affordable, low-income housing
Homelessness in St. Louis County (Duluth area) has increased 18% in the last year. Most of this increase is due to a lack of basic, affordable housing. Most homeless people live precariously by couch surfing with friends or family. But homeless advocates say about 250 people in Duluth are on the streets, living in tents, cars, in the woods, under bridges, or in other places not meant for human habitation.
There is some help available for these people. This winter the City of Duluth will again provide an overnight warming shelter on nights below 32 degrees. CHUM (Churches United in Ministry, Duluth’s largest homeless assistance organization) operates a 24-hour emergency shelter but only has an 80 bed capacity. Both of these shelters are inadequate for the need.
The corona virus pandemic is adding to the problems. Across the country homeless advocates are expecting homelessness to increase as more people lose their jobs, unemployment runs out, and evictions increase. CNBC reported last summer that 30% of home owners and 36% of renters had missed mortgage or rent payments in July. In Duluth CHUM says even before the pandemic 55% of Duluth renters paid more than they could afford for rent. Today unknown hundreds of Duluth households are behind on rent and mortgage payments.
Homelessness is caused by lack of affordable housing. The average rent in Duluth has skyrocketed. A one-bedroom apartment which rented for $660 per month in 2010 was $937 in 2019. It is hard for people with average jobs to pay the rent much less those living in poverty. Given that housing costs are based on the free market and profit, the lack of affordable housing is not surprising, nor is it an easy problem to solve.
Temporary emergency shelter, however, should not be that difficult to provide. This is another issue where we know what is needed, we know what to do, and we have sufficient resources. We just don’t have the political will to make it happen. So, the first three “demands” of the homeless advocates listed above are quite reasonable and achievable. As Shelly Bruecken says in the quote above, we just need to “stop characterizing people and just start helping them.”
To begin with the number of homeless, although embarrassing for a wealthy nation, is not large compared to the total population. Nationwide the number of homeless is only 0.2% of the population. On any given day Minnesota has about 8000 homeless people. In Wisconsin in 2019 about 4500 people were homeless.
I don’t mean to trivialize a complicated problem. Many homeless have serious drug, alcohol, mental illness and employment problems. But given the billions of dollars wasted in our society, both by governments and individuals, providing emergency housing is certainly possible. We have, or could find, the resources if we chose to do it.
I would suggest several emergency possibilities. As a former member of the Wisconsin National Guard I know they have tents, cots, sleeping bags, portable heaters, electric generators, mobile kitchens, and mobile shower facilities. This equipment is in storage around the state. All it would take is the governor’s order and emergency shelters with personal hygiene facilities could be in place within days anywhere in the state. A similar action just occurred with creating an emergency hospital at the state fair grounds.
There are National Guard armories all over the state that could provide emergency facilities immediately. In local areas there are county fairgrounds with usable buildings. Public school facilities could be open at night. Churches, private conference facilities, or businesses closed due to the pandemic could be rented. In Superior the former mall is largely empty. There probably many similar shuttered retail buildings all over the state. Again, the problem is not resources. It is the lack of community will to find solutions.
At a minimum local cities and counties could stop rousting the homeless and create camp grounds for them. Like we do for tourists, the camps could have toilets, showers, electricity, and warming shacks. This would help the unsheltered and minimize problems with unauthorized camping.
The first priority is to get people off the streets before winter. Then the tough work of building more housing and dealing with the other causes of homelessness can continue.