Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Homeless coalition meets with state lawmakers to push for funding, new encampment law

A line graph about homelessness
Results from the 2023 Minnesota Homeless Study from the Wilder Center.
Courtesy image

A report out Wednesday finds nearly 11,000 people in Minnesota experienced homelessness on a single night in October, 7 percent fewer than in 2018 when the Wilder Foundation last collected this data.

A lot happened in that time: a global pandemic, a steep rise in overdoses due to fentanyl and new state investments to help people secure housing.

Advocates spent Wednesday at the state capitol talking about all of those issues and Jason Urbanczyk from Moorhead was among them.

He joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about encampment legislation he helped write as Community Engagement Fellow for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: A report out today finds that nearly 11,000 people in Minnesota experienced homelessness on a single night in October. That's 7% fewer than in 2018, when the Wilder Foundation last collected this data. Now, a lot has happened in that time-- a global pandemic, a steep rise in overdoses because of fentanyl, new state investments to help people secure housing.

Advocates are at the Capitol right now, talking about all of those issues. Jason Urbanczyk from Moorhead is one of them. He's the Community Engagement Fellow for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. And he's on the line. Hey, Jason. Where are you?

JASON URBANCZYK: Hi. How are you doing?

CATHY WURZER: Good. Thanks. What's happening at the Capitol today?

JASON URBANCZYK: Oh, well, today is Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless's Homeless Day on the Hill. At the Capitol this afternoon, we have lawmaker visits going on. Anyone that registered for the Homeless Day on the Hill ceremonies this morning, they automatically were registered to meet with their lawmakers today and have a chance to go down to the state office building and speak their mind and tell their lawmakers what they think needs to be fixed.

CATHY WURZER: Often, lawmakers appreciate hearing personal stories. I know you have a connection to homelessness. What's your story?

JASON URBANCZYK: Yes. I was homeless on and off for pretty much about 15 years of my life. It looked very different at certain points. There's couch hopping and different things. But I spent about three years on the streets, total, in my life.

The last part of that was here in Minnesota. But I'm originally from Detroit, Michigan. That's kind of where my story started there. Ended up homeless because of a heroin addiction that I carried along with me for 17 years of my life. That was probably the root cause of it.

When I got here to Minnesota in 2016, I ended up homeless in Bemidji in the wintertime, which is not a very pleasant place to be. That, in turn, created a lot of crimes, I guess you could say. I started committing financial crimes, different things of that nature that ended up putting me in prison.

And I was released from prison right back to the streets. So I was released with no reentry from the system. So I was really just homeless to the streets, which is not very productive. So that continued another two years of me in and out of jail, in and out of the treatment centers, trying to find the-- trying to find what worked, I guess, is the best way to say it.

And then in 2018, I was evicted from my apartment. The police finally came and kicked me out. I stayed it out as long as I could through different court hearings. I spent two days walking around the Fargo-Moorhead area. I walked myself right through a pair of shoes.

I had stopped, and I looked. The bottom of my feet had this honeycomb-like pattern on the bottom of it from the inside of my shoe, from the structure of my shoe. It was all bruised. And they were bleeding. It was pretty bad.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. And it sounds like that it was a struggle, obviously, for you. I mean, it sounds like your story is very similar to others I bet that you've heard, who are on the street. Not to interrupt your story. I'm sorry. I don't have a whole lot of time.

I do want to know this, though. You mentioned you couch surfed. You stayed by yourself in the streets. Did you find shelters were dangerous? And I ask that question because this new Wilder study finds that about a third of folks experiencing homelessness are living outside shelters. Why might someone not want to be in a shelter?

JASON URBANCZYK: That is what-- you hit the nail right on the head. They're dangerous places. A lot of them are. A lot of violence. A lot of drugs. Like myself, when I was finally at the end of this journey, when I was going into shelter, I was trying to stay sober. That was almost impossible to do in the shelter system. There's people using drugs inside the shelters. It's not a very conducive environment to any kind of healing.

CATHY WURZER: As you know, a lot of people are also-- many people stay in encampments. And I'm wondering-- there are, as you know, many cities in Minnesota looking at various ordinances. I'm thinking of Rochester, Minnesota, just passed an ordinance banning camping on city property and right of ways and that kind of thing. What do you think about those types of rules at the city level?

JASON URBANCZYK: Completely unnecessary. That's causing more harm than it's going to ever cause good. I mean, what good is putting somebody in jail because they're trying to sleep somewhere?

A lot of these folks, there may not be room in the shelter, so there's nowhere for them to go. What else are they going to do? So then the idea is we're going to put them in jail or start ticketing them and giving them unrealistic fines? No, you're actually starting to create another layer of trauma to that person. You're creating more barriers for them. Yeah, I am 100% against rules like that.

CATHY WURZER: So then I understand you're working on some statewide encampment legislation. What would that do?

JASON URBANCZYK: Yes. The encampment piece that I've been privileged to work on is the humane clearing of encampments and the storage of any of the belongings that are going to be left behind in those encampments or the things that folks can't take with them. The legislation is going to set the minimum guidelines on that process. So that way, across the state, there is going to be a uniform process starting.

That will, in turn, have cities, counties, or regions, however this plan is going to turn out, where they'll have to have a homeless response plan in place, ready to go for all of this. So this will be a, like I say, seamless process across the state. That way, we don't have people doing it this one way here and bulldozing people's encampments here. It's going to be done the same way.

And then that will also have a council that will meet 30 days after that, people that were all part of each clearing of the encampment, to talk about that clearing the encampment. That way, they say, OK, this is what happened. We can do better here. And folks that were in the encampment will be allowed in those meetings as well as the outreach workers, police, whoever else were on site during that.

So that's the legislation that I've been working on. And I was very privileged to be able to actually work alongside the folks in the state research department and help write this legislation. So I look through it with a very statewide lens to make sure that it's not going to cause any harm from the top to the bottom of the state. My main focus in my work is to always look at it that way, statewide.

CATHY WURZER: And, of course, you've got personal experience to boot. You know, I'm betting, Jason, a lot of listeners are thinking, instead of talking about rules for encampments, what is being done, tangibly being done to get folks into permanent housing? From where you sit, what's the answer?

JASON URBANCZYK: From where I sit, what's the answer that's being done right now? There's a lot being done. There's a lot of programs that are out there helping folks. But what we really need? We need affordable housing. That's what we need to get people off the streets.

We don't have enough housing to put people in. We can do all these housing programs for people all that we want, give them vouchers. But if we don't have landlords and we don't have homes to put these folks in, that's what we need to be doing. We need to have a heavier emphasis on building affordable housing.

CATHY WURZER: And I'm wondering what you're hoping to do after your fellowship with the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless ends.

JASON URBANCZYK: I am hoping to stay in this field, of course. There is another year on this fellowship. So I'll be a part of it for another year. There's a gentleman that runs a fellowship. His name is Matt Traynor. He's been a mentor to me kind of inadvertently, not by choice with him, but for the last three years.

I look up to Matt. And I want a position like he has. I want to do what he does. He's the executive director of advocacy. He works with all of us. That's where I see myself. And I think that's where I belong.

CATHY WURZER: Well, we wish you well, Jason. It's been a real pleasure talking to you. Thanks.


CATHY WURZER: We've been talking to Jason Urbanczyk. He's the Community Engagement Fellow at the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. By the way, tomorrow morning, on Morning Edition, we'll have a story that digs into the results of the Wilder homeless study.

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