While half of the homeless population in Minnesota is under the age of 24, the fastest growing population of homeless are seniors.
Legislators keep up with these numbers and demographics to make policies and programs to support the health of homeless people, to get them housed, and to prevent people from losing housing in the first place.
That is where the Minnesota Homeless Study comes in. Every three years in October, volunteers across the state survey 10,000 people without homes over 24 hours.
Michelle Decker Gerrard leads this huge endeavor as a senior research manager at Wilder Foundation with the help of volunteers like Dave Schultz, who dedicated his life before retirement to shaping the social system in Minnesota for unhoused people. He worked with the Minnesota Department of Human Services and taught about homelessness at Metropolitan State University.
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MPR News host Cathy Wurzer passed the mic to Decker Gerrard and Schultz for a deep dive on the study, which is scheduled to happen Oct. 26 for the first time since 2018 after being delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.
Correction (Sept. 26, 2023): An earlier version of this story misspelled Dave Schultz’s name.
We attempt to make transcripts for Minnesota Now available the next business day after a broadcast. When ready they will appear here.
Michelle Decker Gerrard leads this huge endeavor as a senior research manager at Wilder Foundation with the help of volunteers like Dave Schultz who dedicated his life before retirement to shaping the social system in Minnesota for unhoused people. He worked with the Department of Human Services and taught about homelessness at Metro State. I'm going to pass the mic right now to Michelle and Dave to hear more about the survey. It's about to get underway for the first time since 2018 after being delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
MICHELLE DECKER GERRARD: Dave, you helped get the homeless study started in 1991. Why did you want to embark on such a thorough study of homeless people in Minnesota at that time?
DAVE SCHULTZ: I was part of an interagency task force on homelessness that was created in state of Minnesota back in the day, so to speak. And we found as we were working initially on all of this as from a state level to say what should the response be to homelessness that we knew very little statistic wise.
What everybody would do at the state level is always look at the census. Well, the census doesn't really look at it. And in particular, it didn't look at it then. There wasn't any information that was coming in about homelessness. We embarked upon that we would try to find out as much information as we could, which would help us in many ways to get other funding for it, especially at the federal level.
MICHELLE DECKER GERRARD: And if I remember right, we were also seeing more people on the streets at that time as well.
DAVE SCHULTZ: Well, correct. Well, that actually went back to 1981, which I call the port in embarking, so to speak, on a major shift in homelessness. We've always had homelessness. So we can't go to the factor we've never had it. But in 1981 with the Reagan administration, we cut general assistance in this state, did some rather drastic things.
That kicked off a huge increase of homelessness. And in fact, that's where the word began to be used as homelessness. Before that and my thesis and everything was all about street people. We're finding that this was brand new territory for most people to understand.
MICHELLE DECKER GERRARD: What have you seen change over all that time in folks experiencing homelessness or in policies related?
DAVE SCHULTZ: Huge changes. Huge changes. And I think the biggest change in many ways is not only the increase in the number of people who have been homeless but also in the factor of how much it's bothering people in general to find out that we have groups of people around the world and in particular in the United States, in particular in Minnesota, who have no place to live.
And then, of course, it's become-- unfortunately I'm going to call it an industry, but it's a huge industry. Today, the number of dollars spent on trying to fight homelessness is huge. And back in the day of 1980s, when the first-- 1981 when the first shelters in the Twin Cities started up, that wasn't the case. It was basically all charity-run just from dollars that you could collect from your church.
The government didn't even participate in the early '80s. Now government plays a huge role, but so do all kinds of foundations and interest groups. Meanwhile, I think we haven't necessarily served homeless people that much better. We've gotten more housing, but we're still a long ways off from ever really stopping homelessness.
MICHELLE DECKER GERRARD: Yeah, and one of the things I noticed was that there was a lot of tearing down or getting rid of the really affordable housing in Minnesota, and so that led to some of our increases in folks that didn't have a place to stay at all. So that's what we're kind of rebuilding a little bit now is those really very affordable places. Does anything make you feel hopeful for the future?
DAVE SCHULTZ: What's hopeful about it is that more and more people get involved with the Wilder Study to have a one-on-one conversation with homeless people, for more people, more taxpayers, more generous souls that we have in this country to pay attention to the factor that we are the problem.
And the solution is that we educate ourselves to having critical thinking about this issue, which says don't just get them off our back or don't stifle this issue or let it go away but it really address it and to work fully behind it. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about what we really do within the survey and give some examples of what it also gets used for.
MICHELLE DECKER GERRARD: Sure, I can talk a little bit about it. So we organize at over 350 shelters around the state, including emergency shelter, domestic violence programs, motel voucher sites. So in some areas of the state, there are no shelters, and so people get a voucher to stay in a motel as an emergency basis.
And we also partner with folks around the state to help us find people that aren't staying in shelters, so people who are camping, staying in their cars. Some folks might be staying in fish house, you know, storage sheds, things like that. So really we're trying to find as many people as we can on a single day in October and hear their stories. So a half hour to 45-minute face to face interview.
Folks get paid $10 cash for completing the interview with us. So it's very complicated to organize, like a one-day effort with 1,000 volunteers, 350 to 400 sites across the state. People have been really helpful and interested in doing it again because people do want to understand what the current state of homelessness in Minnesota is, understand what's changed since the pandemic.
Also, with this huge investment that our state has just made in homelessness, want to understand baseline before that investment happens where we're at right now, and then hopefully things will be a lot better in a couple of years when we start building more affordable housing. Big investment in shelter as well.
DAVE SCHULTZ: It is something to be really excited about. I'm just thrilled as well that this is happening. And I'm going to guess that you're also having to think about questions that are going to be asked about the pandemic though too.
MICHELLE DECKER GERRARD: That's a good question. When we were planning to do the study last year and the year before, we did add a whole bunch of COVID-related questions. Now we actually cut some of those questions. There are more health-related questions to understand impacts on health, and then there are some new sets of questions around people who have experienced overdoses because that is a big issue in our community right now. Also we've just added some questions this time around resiliency and what got people through these experiences recently.
DAVE SCHULTZ: Well, I'm looking forward to hearing about that. What kind of studies come forth from these surveys?
MICHELLE DECKER GERRARD: A lot of people think of it as just a count. The last time we did this study, we did count how many people were included, and it was about 11,371, not that I know the exact number.
DAVE SCHULTZ: [LAUGHS]
MICHELLE DECKER GERRARD: But it's way more than just the count. So we really want it to be an in-depth snapshot of people's lives. For instance, young people where it just is really impossible for them to get housing maybe because of their age or they don't have a housing history or anybody to cosign on their rental unit to older adults where they have a fixed income and there's no way that they can afford apartments in Minnesota. So there are some systemic issues that we're really trying to address through our study results.
DAVE SCHULTZ: So Michelle, a recent study showed that older adults are the fastest growing group of homeless people in the United States. Why is that?
MICHELLE DECKER GERRARD: Yeah, and our study found the same thing. So the biggest leap in age groups for our homeless population in Minnesota between 2015 and 2018 was in our older adults 55 plus. There was a 25% increase. It's a smaller age group than children and adults, so when there are big increases, it shows more prominently.
I also think that it does have something to do with this idea of being more vulnerable. So when you have physical health problems combined with low incomes, anything can set you off-- medical bills, not having a place to stay that is able to manage your disability or health problems. Older adults may not want to bother their family members.
I remember talking to a guy last study who had family but didn't want to be a burden. One of the things we found is that actually a lot of our older adults were experiencing homelessness for the first time. They weren't folks that had experienced homelessness earlier in their life, and I think part of that is that our safety net system is not what it used to be and then also our rents are so high in Minnesota.
DAVE SCHULTZ: Thanks for doing all this and keeping it going at Wilder. I just think the world of what you're doing, and it means a great deal to me. You're educating me all the time.
MICHELLE DECKER GERRARD: Oh, thanks, Dave. You're one of the heroes of the study and of the work, so it's wonderful.
DAVE SCHULTZ: Thank you. Thank you.
CATHY WURZER: Wilder Foundation research manager Michelle Decker Gerrard and volunteer Dave Schultz. This year's Minnesota Homeless Study is happening a month from today, October 26th, and they are looking for volunteers. You can learn more at Wilder.org/MNHomeless.
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