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Plan to address homelessness takes shape
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Douglas Alexander lived behind this grocery store dumpster for a while. He's also lived in the woods. (MPR Photo/Lorna Benson)
The Pawlenty administration is moving ahead with its plan to end long-term homelessness in Minnesota. Legislators this session didn't approve the $20 million for the proposal's first-phase. But the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency says 59 apartments are already being developed using money the agency has redirected from its own budget. Over the next seven years, the administration hopes to build or refurbish 4,000 apartments to house the state's most chronically homeless residents. Homeless advocates generally welcome the idea, but some wonder if it's targeting one group at the expense of another.

St. Paul, Minn. — Douglas Alexander has lived behind dumpsters and in patchy wooded areas of St. Paul for three long years. He's been homeless off and on for most of his adult life, but this is his first extended stay on the streets. Sometimes, to escape the cold, he'll spend a few hours at the Dorothy Day homeless shelter. Family and friends used to offer him a warm place to stay. But this time they've turned their backs on him and Alexander knows why.

"Because I've blown a lot of jobs," said Alexander. "I've blown a lot of relationships with different women. I've lost a couple cars." Alexander turns 50 this July. He's convinced there's still time to turn his life around -- if he could just get a job. He's pounded the pavement for a long time with no luck. Recently he's gotten some help from street-based outreach worker Brett Byfield. Byfield works for Ramsey County and has an office in the shelter. Alexander stops by occasionally to fax his resumes.

This is a bitter, bitter, bitter pill that I'm swallowing right now, and it hurts. It hasn't killed me yet. I'm not going to allow it to.
- Douglas Alexander

Alexander hands Byfield his resume. A friend had helped him create it on a library computer. It's neatly typed and full of experiences, ranging from housekeeping to working in a machine shop and a book bindery. The resume looks good. But Byfield suspects there's another reason Alexander isn't getting hired.

"Doug has been suffering from kind of a long-term chronic stress, which I think has impacted his ability to present himself calmly and strongly to employers. And I think that's just a necessary byproduct of being out there a long, long time," said Byfield.

Alexander's stress is evident. When he tried to make an appointment to get health care benefits, he quickly became overwhelmed.

"Can you make it about 11:00?," Alexander asks a scheduler.

"I got 10:30. Will that work?"

"Yeah, 10:30 will be fine. I gotta have time to have travel time and stuff," said Alexander. "I gotta work on a clock. I gotta work on a watch. I gotta work on -- oh man, I'm backed up. Oh, take me out of this problem! I'll be all right."

Recently Alexander agreed to see a psychiatrist. But he's skipped several followup appointments. Like many people who've been homeless for a long time, his case poses a challenge for mental health workers. He agrees that there may be something wrong with the way he's thinking right now. He doesn't like talking about his mental state, for fear of losing control. During breakfast at Mickey's Diner in St. Paul, Alexander comes close to weeping a couple of times.

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Image Byfield and client

"This is a bitter, bitter, bitter pill that I'm swallowing right now and it hurts," said Alexander. "It hasn't killed me yet. I'm not going to allow it to."

Douglas Alexander fits the profile of someone Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants to target with his proposal to end long-term homelessness. Under the plan, the state would subsidize thousands of low-rent apartments for people who've been homeless for more than a year. In some cases, people like Alexander who have no income might be able to get free housing.

"Potentially, it's very good news for Douglas," said Brett Byfield. He applauds the governor for trying to end long-term homelessness.

"This plan offers a tremendous answer to folks who've been struggling on the street for a long, long time -- and for that we're grateful," said Byfield.

But he's also worried the governor's approach is too narrow.

"It doesn't seek to address the issues of homelessness before it becomes so exacerbated, before it becomes so chronic, and before people become so demoralized, that the only way to change that pattern is with the heavy artillery of supportive housing," Byfield said.

Supportive housing is a major component of the governor's plan. It's much more than just subsidized housing. Social workers and case managers often locate their offices in a supportive housing complex to check in on residents regularly. In many housing units, 24-hour security monitors visitors.

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Image Richard Amos

The administration estimates its plan will cost $540 million over the next seven years. But some homeless advocates think the pricetag will be much higher. They worry the cost will syphon funds away from the estimated 17,000 Minnesotans who've been homeless for less than a year, or are in temporary shelters because they've lost jobs or have high medical bills.

In Minneapolis, Richard Amos works for St. Stephen's Housing Services, a non-profit agency that helps homeless people. He's a member of the working group that gave the governor advice on how to solve homelessness. Amos is thankful the governor is focusing on this issue. But he thinks the need is much greater than the scope of this plan.

Many people have recently reached the end of their welfare benefits. Amos predicts there will be a flood of low-income families who lose their housing, because they won't be able to afford market-rate rents in the Twin Cities.

"There's a big demand for affordable housing," said Amos. "A mom and one child through welfare gets $437 a month. I'm not really sure where you can live on that amount of money unless it's subsidized housing, and they have a year or two-year waiting list in the Twin Cities area."

Even working families have had a hard time keeping their housing. Ricky Rowles and Elizabeth Rodriguez just spent 10 days in a homeless shelter with their five children after losing their apartment.

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Image Home at last

"We were paying $1,350 for our last place and we couldn't afford it, and so we moved to his mother's," Rodriguez said. "And they're older, and we've been there for a year, and they just said, 'We can't take all the kids.'"

Richard Amos was able to find the family a four-bedroom house in northeast Minneapolis on short notice. It's been a while since someone has lived in the house. It needs work and the grass is more than a foot tall. But it looks good to Rowles.

"We would have never found this on our own if we were looking," said Rowles. "Bad credit and stuff like that."

Still, they will have to come up with $1,000 a month to rent this house. St. Stephen's Housing Services will help them for a few months, but after that they're on their own. Rodriguez is hoping to find a better paying job, while Rowles is still looking for work.

Minnesota Housing Finance Commissioner Tim Marx is heading up the governor's homeless plan. He agrees that affordable housing is still a very big concern.

"One of the things we are seeing in some areas is some of the larger families," said Marx. "And that's a particular challenge to provide good housing for the larger families who need larger units or larger homes, to provide decent housing."

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Image Commissioner Marx

But Marx said Minnesota already spends more than $1 billion on affordable housing programs each biennium, and has one of the nation's lowest percentages of households facing critical housing needs. In contrast, he thinks long-term homelessness hasn't gotten the attention it deserves. Still, he's sensitive to concerns that the state might raid one program to pay for another.

"We don't want to make the overall homeless situation worse by this effort, and we have to -- I think -- be very careful about that as we proceed," said Marx.

Ideally the state won't be tackling this problem alone. The governor has asked for help from the federal government, local officials, foundations and non-profits. And even though Minnesota lawmakers didn't give Pawlenty his $20 million request this session for the first phase of his proposal, the administration is confident it'll have better luck next year.

In the meantime, the plan to end long-term homelessness is moving ahead with 59 apartments already in the works.

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