Philanthropy is not enough — Legislature needs to step up for homeless youth | Opinion

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The past three years have been disruptive for all Minnesotan students – but some more so than others. 

For example, a high school senior in Bloomington (whom we will refer to as Austin) has been unhoused since 2020 following the loss of his mother. Bouncing between family and friends, Austin never wanted to burden anyone, so he would never stay too long. He was working as many hours as he could at a local restaurant, but life was chaotic. So much so that last fall, Austin didn’t even know the school year had started and missed two full weeks of his senior year before a trusted case manager at the local nonprofit Oasis for Youth realized something was amiss.

As local philanthropists committed to youth well-being, education and housing, we are continually reminded that these three issues are interconnected. We hear stories like Austin’s from our non-profit and government partners all the time. Austin’s story demonstrates that education is significantly impacted by access to housing. In fact, stable housing is foundational to every part of a young person’s life. 

Yet, the resources that social workers, teachers and non-profit workers can access to help homeless students are limited. On the heels of a historic public health disruption, the Legislature now needs to deeply invest in the underserved and unsheltered youth of our communities through the Homeless Youth Act.

More than half of Minnesotan adults experiencing homelessness reported first becoming homeless before age 24, and 36% first became homeless at or before age 18. Minnesota can do better for our young people, and targeted investments in the Homeless Youth Act are a key part of the solution. The Homeless Youth Act provides support for runaway youth, homeless youth, and youth at risk of homelessness, and defines the continuum of services for youth, including outreach, drop-in services, emergency shelter and housing. With a baseline investment of just over $11 million in Minnesota’s last biennium, we urge lawmakers to increase the state’s commitment to the Homeless Youth Act by an additional $50 million. 

The crisis is not restricted to the metro region: across Minnesota, an estimated 5,800 minors and 7,500 young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 will experience homelessness over the course of one year. That’s 13,300 Minnesota youth without homes — and the real number is likely higher since youth experiencing homelessness are among the most invisible and the most vulnerable. Statewide, 73% of youth experiencing homelessness are citizens of color. This is unacceptable. 

As Minnesota faces major decisions about what to do with an unprecedented $9.2 billion state budget surplus, sometimes people suggest tax breaks are the answer. Those same folks often point to philanthropy as the solution to disparities and inequities. Yet while private dollars can often set new precedents and help jumpstart and pave the way for progress, new housing initiatives cannot be sustained without public dollars. 

We know firsthand that the Twin Cities is one of the most generous philanthropic communities in the country, and foundations like the ones we lead take unique approaches to tackling systemic inequities. For example, Constellation employs analytics to illustrate and evaluate funding impact, while Graves takes a grassroots, relational approach. Both perspectives have pointed to the pressing need for and long-term impact of addressing youth homelessness, and have led our organizations to invest in turn. And though local philanthropists and foundations like ours take complementary and comprehensive approaches to serving unhoused youth, it’s not enough. 

We can do better for vulnerable young people like Austin. Through our work, we have seen firsthand that Minnesota has the non-profit and government infrastructure necessary to help Austin stay on a path to success. But we also know that philanthropic dollars alone cannot change the disparities we face as a state. Thankfully, Austin was re-enrolled in school and is set to graduate this spring, but many in his situation have not been able to stay on track. 

As a state, we can decide that we will no longer accept the current reality of unsheltered youth homelessness. We can decide whether or not we will take this opportunity to do better. We can decide whether or not we want to be known as a state that stands for children. We ask the Minnesota Legislature to stand with us to help protect youth by increasing funding to the Homeless Youth Act.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and are not representative of the Constellation Fund or Graves Foundation.

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Andrew Dayton
Andrew Dayton

Andrew Dayton is the founder and CEO of the Constellation Fund, which leverages data and research to identify, fund, and empower the people and organizations making the biggest demonstrable impacts in the fight against poverty in the Twin Cities. Andrew has also worked in government and the hospitality industry. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife.

Bill Graves
Bill Graves

Bill Graves is the founding president of The John and Denise Graves Family Foundation. Prior to his work with the foundation, Bill worked in the technology and creative consulting sectors as a business analyst, writer, producer and resource manager. He lives in Northeast Minneapolis with his wife Mary and two daughters.