Committee Summary: House Preventing Homelessness Division Meeting, Jan. 27

By: J.D. Duggan, Freelance Community Journalist

On Wednesday, the House Preventing Homelessness Division heard from two state agencies about homelessness and incarceration and lessons learned during the pandemic.

The Department of Corrections (DOC) presented to the new committee about incarceration and housing insecurity, laying out efforts for community reentry and the impact that homelessness has for a person’s ability to succeed in their communities. Afterward, the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness (MICH) presented to the lawmakers for the second time about lessons they’ve learned about homelessness response during the COVID-19 pandemic.

DOC presentation

Kelley Heifort, community reentry director at the DOC, said creating adequate housing and addressing homelessness is urgent for two major reasons: It’s difficult to supervise people on release when they are unhoused, and homelessness creates major obstacles for a person to break the cycle of incarceration.

As the committee has heard every week, homelessness has racially disproportionate impacts on Minnesota’s population. Black and Indigenous people comprise a large portion of those on probation and supervised release who are experiencing homelessness.  

The DOC also noted that huge swaths of people who are released from prisons experience unsheltered homelessness at extremely high rates in four counties: Clay, Washington, Scott and Polk. These counties account for more than half of all people released from prisons that are experiencing unsheltered homelessness. The DOC doesn’t yet know why.

At the end of the presentation, GOP committee lead Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch, said it seems the committee’s goal isn’t necessarily to create more resources — as many are currently available — but “parsing out what’s there and what’s not” and discovering where needs are the greatest.

MICH presentation

MICH presented for the second time to the committee Wednesday, breaking down what some of the homeless response work has looked like throughout the pandemic. 

Cathy ten Broeke, executive director of MICH, noted that COVID-19 was not a priority for people experiencing homelessness. Those people were more concerned that they would get their daily medications and other necessities.

The group said that homelessness and COVID-19 are both public health crises and should be addressed through that lens. This means using public-health informed recommendations for responding to homelessness and recognizing ways that public health systems have underserved communities of color. They added that the sense of urgency seen as the pandemic worsened needs to be sustained with responding to homelessness.

Presenters emphasized that centering racial equity is a key part of solving these issues.

They also said that policies are necessary for clarifying roles within the multiple levels of government and nonprofits responding to homelessness. Committee members have repeatedly said coordination could be the Legislature’s key role within homelessness response.

While the pandemic taught MICH what is possible for homelessness response when agencies come together, there is not a “cookie-cutter” answer that applies across the board, Eric Grumdahl, deputy director of MICH, said during the presentation.

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