There are as many homeless kids in Minnesota as the population of some small cities

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More than 9,000 Minnesota students were identified as homeless at the start of the 2019-20 school year, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Education. That’s about as many people who live in cities like Detroit Lakes and Waseca. 

The proportion of Minnesota students who experience homelessness has hovered around 1% for at least the past five years. Although services are becoming more available for children without stable housing, experts say many young people still struggle to find resources.

“[These youth] are huge problem solvers,” said Michelle Decker Gerrard, director of the Wilder Research Minnesota Homeless Study. “They’re really resilient, and they’re able to figure out where to go to get the services, but in some areas they just aren’t available.”

Counting homeless and highly mobile youth is difficult, and estimates of the total number of minors experiencing homelessness in Minnesota vary. According to the Minnesota Department of Education — which receives counts of students identified by their school districts as homeless by Oct. 1 each year — 9,060 students were homeless in fall 2019.

The federal government reports a significantly higher figure. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness put the total closer to 16,700 in the 2017-18 school year, based on schools’ reports of students experiencing homelessness at any point during the year.

Wilder Research, which conducts a one-day study of homelessness in Minnesota every three years, estimated that about 2,500 unaccompanied minors experienced homelessness on any given night in 2015.

Tracking the number of people sleeping in shelters is relatively simple, but counting those who are couch hopping, doubled up in shared living arrangements with other families or have no shelter is a challenge, Gerrard said.

Fewer than a quarter of the 16,668 Minnesota youth who were homeless in 2017 were sleeping in shelters or transitional housing, according to the National Center for Homeless Education. About two-thirds were doubled up, and the rest were unsheltered or sleeping in hotels.

The population of homeless youth has remained relatively stable since Wilder began studying homelessness in 1991, but their needs have intensified, Gerrard said. In 2015, more than half of people under 24 experiencing homelessness reported significant mental health issues, and more than one-third had chronic physical health problems, Wilder Research found.


Worsening racial disparities are also a concern, Gerrard said. Nearly 75% of homeless youth were people of color, Wilder’s 2015 study found, whereas children from communities of color comprise 25% of all Minnesota youth.

Despite some success by a statewide campaign to reduce homelessness and provide more resources, young people still face barriers in finding support. The shortage of shelters and services for unaccompanied youth is especially pronounced in the suburbs and rural parts of the state, Gerrard said. Youth living in rural areas accounted for about one-third of those counted in the Wilder study.

The lack of affordable housing here remains an issue for many, and the tight housing market means that young people who find a place they could afford are less likely to be approved by landlords, since they’re competing for housing against experienced renters with longer rental histories and more references, Gerrard said. 

Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn is a Minnesota native and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.