Franklin encampment crisis should spur us to do something about homelessness — Opinion

September 21, 2021 6:00 am

Luke Little Thunder brushes off a cushion at an encampment where he was staying along Franklin Avenue near Cedar Avenue Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

The recent Reformer article on the Franklin Street encampment highlighted the ongoing crisis of unsheltered homelessness, especially in the Indigenous community. There is undoubtedly a housing and homelessness crisis in Minneapolis and in communities all across Minnesota. State and local governments must invest in the services and infrastructure to address it on a systemic level. To end this crisis, it’s vital to make bold, ongoing commitments to expand shelter and create homes. It’s a matter of priority. 

Our community currently lacks the capacity to meet the shelter and housing needs of individuals and families across the state. On any given night, Minnesota has around 20,000 people experiencing homelessness, and about 50,000 people will experience homelessness this year, according to a recent report from Wilder Research. Of Minnesota’s 87 counties, 80 either have no shelter beds or do not have enough shelter beds for individuals experiencing homelessness. The rise of homelessness in both the metro and greater Minnesota is well documented and increasing. 

Behind each of these statistics is a real person facing unimaginable challenges and trying to survive. People experiencing homelessness might be escaping an abusive partner, seeking refuge after coming out as LGBTQ+ to their unsupportive parents, or losing a stable job with an impossible choice in how to spend their last $100. 

The issue isn’t finding solutions — it’s obtaining the resources necessary to fund proven solutions. Nonprofit organizations know what works when it comes to combating the homelessness crisis. Low-barrier shelters are a point of access that allow people to maintain a sense of autonomy while offering safety and community support. Trauma-informed care and culturally responsive practices promote emotional safety and healing, ultimately providing tools for people experiencing homelessness to find a path to stability.

We want to lift up what Marisa Cummings told the Reformer, that last year during the second ‘Wall of Forgotten Natives,’ her organization proposed a pilot program to put up 30 people in rooms, and got state funding for five. We need the political will to attain long-term funding at a level that meets the scale of the need.

Although the Wall of Forgotten Natives and the Navigation Center have been catalysts to long-term success in working to end homelessness, the COVID-19 response has ultimately been a short-term band-aid for a much larger problem. Temporary solutions such as relying on hotels aren’t reliable in the long-term, and recent examples of this proved something we’ve known for some time: Providing shelter that is safe, dignified, and accessible is key to bringing individuals and families inside.

Shelters have prioritized the immediate safety of people at risk during the pandemic, but we have the opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive. Now is the time to invest in the preservation and creation of shelter necessary to enact real systemic change and form pathways to hope and long-term housing stability.

The greatest risk factor to becoming homeless is a lack of safe, dignified and affordable homes. This is a systemic problem — not a failure of individuals. At the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, we will continue to advocate for investments in our shelter system to expand, preserve and improve shelter beds across Minnesota. These investments are needed to create shelter spaces that are culturally appropriate and accessible for individuals and families all across Minnesota.

Shelter saves lives, and affordable, dignified homes end homelessness.

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Rhonda Otteson
Rhonda Otteson

Rhonda Otteson is the executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. Previously, she was the executive director of The Link of Northern Kandiyohi County and spent almost 10 years working at Heartland Community Action Agency, where she oversaw state and federal housing programs that served people experiencing homelessness.