The Myth of the Homeless Person

Joshua Lang
St. Stevens Homeless Shelter

The image that most people identify with a homeless person is the panhandler on Nicollet Mall, the vodka-guzzling man on the bus, or the mentally ill person hearing voices on the corner. These stereotypes are the visibly homeless. In reality, they are the exception rather than the norm. On any given night an estimated 8,600 people are homeless in Minnesota (Wilder Research Center, 2000). Many people don’t know that these people live in shelters, abandoned buildings and under bridges. Who is homeless in the Twin Cities today? You’d probably be surprised to know.

On May 25, 2000 the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning (DCFL) reported that more than half of the homeless population (51.3%) were children or unaccompanied youth. People Serving People, a Minneapolis shelter designed for families with children, has an estimated one hundred school buses arrive each morning to pick up kids for school. It doesn’t take a psychologist to realize that these children are growing up with major social and physical barriers. A homeless child is twice as likely to have learning disabilities and six times more likely to have stunted growth than someone in a stable environment (Family Housing Fund, Homelessness and Its Effects on Children, 1999). Eventually many of these children will have children of their own. Currently eight percent of homeless adults were homeless as children, suggesting there may be a snowballing effect in the future.

The Twin Cities attracts people looking for jobs from all over the country. Many people believe that a good, old-fashioned work ethic will raise anyone out of poverty. Unfortunately, the “get a job” myth is a simple answer to a complex problem. The reality is that a growing number of working homeless people live in our communities. 41% of homeless adults are working, 26% of whom work full time. The total number of adults working full time has more than tripled since 1990 (Wilder Research Center, 2000).

Roughly one in five homeless adults have been diagnosed with alcohol abuse disorder, and one in eight have a drug abuse disorder. Competent treatment centers and supportive transitional housing for people leaving these programs are needed to ensure they stay off the streets. This group makes up a minority of the total homeless population. The mentally ill population, however, is growing. Today, 38% of homeless adults suffer from mental illness. This is a six percent increase from 1997 (Wilder Research Center, 2000).  “Many people with mental health issues can function well in a normal environment. However, the stresses of being homeless can exacerbate the existing symptoms for the mentally ill person” (David Krall, Senior Social Worker with Hennepin County Access).

The Reality of the Homeless Situation

People are working and making money, yet people are homeless. This isn’t how it used to be. As late as 1981, there was little need for shelters in the Twin Cities. Then people in the religious community started to notice people hanging around their churches with nowhere to go at night. Some churches in Minneapolis decided they would open their doors to alleviate what they saw as a temporary problem. But the problem grew. When the churches realized that homelessness wasn’t going away, most of them shut down their temporary shelters, feeling that the government needed to bring something to the table to end this problem.

During the early 1980’s, federal funding for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was cut drastically. Between 1977 and 1982, federal appropriations for HUD dropped from $93 billion to just under $30 billion. During this time the Twin Cities homeless population grew. By 1990 the number of affordable housing units in Minnesota dropped below the number of people in need. During the past three years, rents have increased 20% in the Twin Cities (Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, 2001). This is because the Twin Cities are currently a property owner’s market. Only three of the nation’s 75 largest metro areas have significantly lower rental vacancies than the Twin Cities. With a rental vacancy rate of 1.5%, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a homeless individual to compete for housing. Imagine trying to fill out a rental application with no permanent address and no phone number. For those with a felony on their record, or who have been evicted from an apartment, that 1.5% vacancy rate becomes even smaller.

Having a stable rental history and a clean record does not guarantee anyone a place to live. The Twin Cities is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. The common definition of affordable housing is considered to be 30% of a person’s income. A full-time worker earning the state median wage of $8.06 per hour could afford a $397 apartment. The average one-bedroom apartment in the Twin Cities rents for $664. For someone to afford a $664 apartment, they would need to earn $12.77 per hour (Office of the Legislative Auditor, 2001). As the gap between minimum wage and living wage widens, the amount of homeless full-time workers will likely increase.

Homelessness may start becoming more visible. There are not enough shelters to house everyone. The DCFL reported that on May 25, 2000, over 9000 people were turned away from shelters. More affordable housing needs to be built for people who are ready to move on from the streets. This means the public needs to be educated about the myths and realities of why people are homeless. Neighborhood groups have influence on what sort of housing will be built in their area. Politicians need to hear from their constituencies to know what issues are important. Homelessness is everyone’s problem. To be proud of the Twin Cities is to care about the welfare of everyone in the community.

Read Up

Rachel and Her Children, by Jonathan Kozol.

Travels with Lisbeth, by Lars Eighner.

Alliance of the Streets: Handbook 2000: Resource Guide for Poor and Homeless People, Request a copy at 612-870-0529 (specify St. Paul or Minneapolis).

Act Locally
Sister’s Camelot
2423 16th Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55404

Volunteer Resource Center of the Twin Cities

Jobs and Affordable Housing Campaign

Habitat for Humanity

Random Act of Kindness

Sister’s Camelot, an organic food shelf bus, is a non-profit organization “sharing good food, sustainability, and kindness with the inner city.” Founder Jeff Borowiak drives the bus three times a week to various neighborhoods in South Minneapolis. The organization states that by “meeting everyone’s basic human needs (freely with no strings attached), we move beyond survival and begin to recreate a healthy glowing community.”

One of the things that sets Sister’s Camelot apart from other food shelves is that it is organic and fresh. Since October 1997, Sister’s Camelot has been sharing hundreds of cases of organic fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy bulk foods for free each week. The food is what you would see at co-ops like Linden Hills, North Country, The Seward, Mississippi Market or the Wedge. Most of the food is donated by area organic and natural food wholesalers, including Roots & Fruits, Blooming Prairie, J & J Distributing and Co-op Partner’s Warehouse. Donations are also made by local gardeners and organic farms.

Community donations to Sister’s Camelot will help pay for their small office, mechanics, insurance, gas, government fees, and salaries. Also, for every hour you surf the internet, $1.00 is donated to Sister’s Camelot.


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