Getting a handle on homelessness

Southwest Minnesota Continuum of Care is only the fourth entity in the United States that can say it has eliminated chronic homelessness in its region

Photo by Karin Elton Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan was in Marshall Monday to host a roundtable on homelessness.

MARSHALL — An area collaborative partnership has received statewide recognition that it has ended chronic homelessness in southwestern Minnesota — and state representatives would like tips on how this extraordinary feat was achieved.

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan was in Marshall Monday morning along with other state government representatives, regional representatives and area agency representatives for a roundtable discussion on chronic homelessness in southwest Minnesota.

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have confirmed that the Southwest Minnesota Continuum of Care has ended chronic homelessness.

“Not having a home for a day, a week or even two weeks is a horrible thing, but when we think about not having a place to sleep for over a year, or four times during the course of three years and struggling with some kind of disabling condition, that is what HUD calls chronic homelessness,” said Michele Smith, the field office director at HUD in Minneapolis.

“To eliminate chronic homelessness is truly a challenge,” she said. “Some who work in this field say it’s impossible to eradicate. But I’m here to tell you today that in Minnesota we know it’s not impossible.”

Homelessness is an ongoing challenge.

“Saying homelessness is over doesn’t mean that someday another chronically homeless situation won’t arise, but that the structures and systems are in place to quickly obtain permanent housing,” said Smith.

While celebrating southwest Minnesota’s success doesn’t mean there aren’t still problems statewide, Smith said.

“Since 2015 homelessness has risen 15 percent,” she said. “My hope here is that we can use the success of the Southwest Minnesota Continuum of Care as inspiration to continue to address homelessness in Minnesota. We can and we must keep this momentum going by continuing to partner together, strategize and try to effectively end all forms of homelessness.”

Smith brought with her two copies of a proclamation to present to Flanagan and Justin Vorbach of Southwest Minnesota Continuum of Care. The proclamation said the Southwest Minnesota Continuum of Care has effectively ended homelessness.

“We are confident the systems and infrastructure you have built will sustain this remarkable achievement,” the proclamation from HUD said.

Vorbach said homelessness hits minorities particularly hard.

“There are racial disparities,” said Vorbach. American Indians, with only 1 percent of the population account for “8 or 9 percent of the homeless” and African-Americans are 6 percent of the population of Minnesota but account for 35 percent of the state’s homeless.

Area agencies followed a “housing first” strategy.

“It used to be ‘get your life together and then we’ll help you get housing,'” said Vorbach. Now it’s recognized that housing is necessary for stability.

Smith recognized the case managers at United Community Action Partnership who have worked with their customers.

“I’d like to give a particular shout-out to case manager Jeannie Antony, who is retiring next month,” she said.

Flanagan echoed Smith’s congratulations to Antony.

“Not everyone gets to retire on such a milestone,” she said.

Flanagan said she knows firsthand the importance of stable housing.

“When we moved to St. Louis Park my mom got on Section 8 housing and this provided a strong foundation. I take it personally.”

Area agency personnel emphasized the collaborative aspect has been vital to the success on getting a handle on homelessness.

“It’s the people that made this happen,” said Vorbach. He named the Housing Partnership, UCAP, victim service providers such as WRAP and Southwest Crisis Center.

Another key to success is to “quickly identify the needs of the individual or family,” Antony said.

Also, there must be mutual trust and respect.

“It has to be both ways,” she said.

The recipient has work to do in their situation as well.

“The consumers get out of the programming what they put in,” Antony said.

Angela Larson, community and family support director at UCAP, said the agencies “work hard together. With limited resources, you can’t duplicate programs.”

Forming and maintaining relationships is an important part of achieving goals.

“We know each other by name and are close-knit,” she said.

Roundtable participants said it is cost effective to help people with housing.

“You can see the success in reduced health care costs, fewer visits to the emergency room, better attendance at school,” said Larson.

Roundtable participants included Housing Commissioner Jennifer Leimaile Ho; Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Tony Lourey; House Speaker Melissa Hortman; Kristie Blankenship, SW MN Housing Partnership chief operation officer and Jenn Lamb of the SW MN Housing Partnership. Marshall City Council member John DeCramer and Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, attended as well and were given recognition for their efforts and support.