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Bills aim to ease greater Minnesota's housing, homelessness struggles

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A panel of representatives and advocates for the homeless outlined legislative priorities at the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless annual Day on the Hill event Tuesday, March 14, 2017. Rep. Nils Pierson, left, Rep. Liz Olson and Coalition Director Senta Leff look on as Pines and Lakes community advocate Oscar Lopez, right, discusses rural homelessness. Maureen McMullen / Forum News Service2 / 2

ST. PAUL—Signs of homelessness in small Minnesota communities are not always as obvious as in bigger cities.

While people without a roof over their head may be able to stay at a shelter or apply for housing projects in urban cities, homeless populations in rural communities may be hundreds of miles away from the nearest shelter.

Some will stay with family members or friends. Others will seek shelter in fish houses on frozen lakes, heated dog houses or vacant trailers.

"I've heard stories of people walking the aisles of 24-7 Walmarts, and I've heard stories of folks who go into hospitals and look for rooms with empty beds and hope that no one will find them until morning," said Senta Leff, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. "They're less visible in these rural communities, but they are no less present."

The discussion came as more than 700 volunteers registered for the coalition's Homeless Day at the Capitol, an annual event when advocates discuss with legislators how to combat homelessness and housing barriers in Minnesota.

A recent study from the Minnesota Housing Partnership found that more than 9,300 Minnesotans are homeless. More than one-third of that number are children, and 843 are senior citizens.

Speakers on a bipartisan panel of legislators and advocates discussed the issues they see in Minnesota and their plans to address them.

Among the speakers was Oscar Lopez, a community advocate who works with homeless families and individuals in Minnesota's seven-county Lakes and Pines region on the state's eastern border.

"The stereotype of the homeless person pushing the cart, going from place to place collecting cans, that's not the way it looks in rural areas," he said.

Although he said few of his clients consider themselves homeless, many will stay with family members until an argument leads to them being kicked out. They then have to rely on their car for shelter, or stay with dangerous people.

The coalition supports a bill by Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, that would add $6.5 million over two years to the state's affordable housing efforts.

The additional funding would help pay for emergency, long-term and transitional housing for homeless populations. It also would assist homeless Minnesotans with serious mental illnesses.

The bill will be considered for a larger bill by a House human services finance committee.

Rep. Nels Pierson, a Rochester Republican who also spoke at the event, said he worries about how unstable housing affects children.

"It's an issue where that instability causes anxiety," he said. "For a young mind that's supposed to be focused on school work, that's not a good place to be."

Pierson introduced a coalition-backed bill that would increase Minnesota Family Investment Program cash assistance by $100 per month.

The program funding provides a monthly maximum of $532 in temporary cash assistance to parents working towards full-time employment. The amount has not changed since 1986.

The House human services finance committee is expected to hear the bill Thursday, March 16.

As part of its Homes for All initiative, the coalition also supports a bill that would add $130 million in spending towards affordable housing over two years.

The bill, sponsored by Willmar Republican Rep. Dave Baker, would increase funding to:

• A family homeless prevention assistance fund.

• Rental assistance for highly mobile students and the homeless.

• A program to keep homeless individuals with serious mental illness off the waitlist for federal housing assistance.

• Match financing to build and preserve affordable housing.

• Financial counseling for first-time homebuyers.

• Down-payment assistance.

Duluth Rep. Liz Olson, a Democrat who spoke on the panel, said the funding would help improve access to affordable housing in areas where the median-income workforce struggles to pay rent.

A former employee of a homeless shelter in Duluth, Olson said reducing homelessness is not a partisan issue, but rather a "Minnesota issue."

"That's why, as someone who put in work on these issues from an advocacy standpoint and work on this as a legislator, I've been so pleased to see homes for all garner bipartisan support," she said.

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