Minnesota House of Reps aims to tackle homelessness

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By: J.D. Duggan, Freelance Journalist

In the wake of a tumultuous year for unsheltered people in Minneapolis, the Minnesota Legislature has formed a new committee to proactively address homelessness throughout the state.

Cathy ten Broeke, executive director of the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness, presented at the Minnesota House of Representatives’ first Preventing Homelessness Division meeting.

The House Preventing Homelessness Division held its first meeting Wednesday with DFL and GOP members from throughout the state. Chair Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, has consistently focused her legislative efforts on tackling racial disparities and social justice initiatives — and the new committee is no different.

“The issue of homelessness is at the intersection of a number of challenges and crises and systems that fail people and systems that exhibit systemic racial injustice,” Gomez said in an interview. “You need only look at the statistics on who experiences homelessness.”

Black or African American and Indigenous peoples are significantly more likely to experience homelessness than white people, according to a presentation by the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homeless (MICH) given at the committee’s first meeting.

Many committee members said that homelessness is at the intersection of a variety of crises in their communities: mental health, drug addiction, housing, human trafficking and others. 

Speaker of the House Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, tapped Gomez to lead the committee because of her consistent work over the summer addressing the needs of people living in the massive homeless encampments that cropped up in Minneapolis’ Powderhorn Park.

Those encampments were one part of a chaotic year for people experiencing homelessness in Minneapolis.

In the fallout of the George Floyd uprising, vast encampments were pitched throughout Minneapolis parks and subsequently evicted, unsheltered people bunked in a Sheraton Hotel for a short period of time before they were kicked out and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated ongoing economic struggles and disparities.

The committee will invite people experiencing homelessness to testify about how to craft policy that is most responsive to their needs, Gomez said. 

The lawmakers are intentional about addressing homelessness outside of the metro area, too, and Vice Chair Heather Keeler, DFL-Moorhead, represents a district hundreds of miles from Minneapolis. Gomez said that close to half of the campers in Powderhorn Park also hailed from Greater Minnesota.

“I think it’s perceived as a metro issue, but we really just need to always acknowledge that it’s a statewide issue and that we’re going to need different approaches,” Gomez said.

About 34% of Minnesotans facing homelessness are outside the metro area, according to MICH’s presentation. 

“Ending homelessness means that we are preventing new homelessness whenever we possibly can,” said Cathy ten Broeke, executive director of MICH, at the meeting. 

Presenters especially focused on the lack of housing for low-income populations.

“Minnesotans are resilient, but many many Minnesotans are hanging on now by a thread,” said Eric Grumdahl, deputy director of MICH, during the meeting. 

In future meetings, Gomez said the committee will work on a shelter residents bill of rights that is guided by community organizations Freedom from the Streets and Street Voices of Change. Other meetings will revolve around encampment strategy response and the emergency shelter system.

Gomez hopes that by having ten legislators “laser focused” on the issue for two years will help improve coordination for responding to homelessness and make it a priority at the state government level.

“So many of our problems are because of this failure of our compassionate imagination, failure to really think of ourselves as connected to every person and to fight for people who are not our voters and who are not our people who we know well,” Gomez said. “Infusing that ethic of care into the work of government is what I’m about.” 

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