On long-term homelessness, Pawlenty misses goal

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Ahmed Nur
In a Friday, Oct. 23, 2009 photo, Ahmed Nur, 29, of Minneapolis, who has been homeless on and off since 1998, talks with a reporter at the downtown public library were he spends many of his days in Minneapolis, Minn.
AP Photo/Craig Lassig

Barely a year into his first term, Gov. Tim Pawlenty set out to end long-term homelessness in Minnesota by 2010, an audacious-sounding goal that he insisted was "very real and attainable."

"Our homeless population in Minnesota isn't so large that we can't solve the problem in the near and intermediate term," he said in his January 2004 State of the State address.

Almost six years later, the problem remains. The two-term Republican governor's plan to create housing for the persistently homeless has stalled, with 1,500 of an estimated 4,000 long-term homeless housed and little development this year. Meanwhile, advocates say more people are becoming homeless as the recession and its aftereffects chew into once-stable lives.

Minnesota's homeless population grew 4 percent last year in estimates from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, even as homelessness dropped slightly nationwide. National advocates said they expect this year's numbers to continue to grow; Minnesota officials are waiting for results of a statewide survey done in October.

Pawlenty said there's a simple reason he hasn't fulfilled the goal: the recession.

"It's unrealistic for even the most passionate advocates to think that everything could just stay the same when you have the worst economic crisis in the country in 40 years," he said. "So some adjustments had to be made."

Pawlenty, now a potential Republican presidential candidate, stood out among the nation's governors with his businesslike approach to then-President George W. Bush's priority of ending long-term homelessness. Starting in 2004, the Minnesota governor put cabinet members on the job, committed state bonding money and recruited donors to the cause.

"I just don't remember other governors doing it in such a concrete, planful way," said Neil Donovan, who heads the National Coalition for the Homeless.

The idea behind Minnesota's plan was to create supportive housing for the homeless, giving them rent subsidies and services ranging from case managers to mental health counseling and chemical dependency treatment to get at the roots of their problems. The state has sunk $215 million into the initiative to date, with smaller amounts of outside money coming from the federal government and private donors.

Monica Nilsson
Monica Nilsson, director of outreach at St. Stephen's Human Services talks with a reporter at her office in Minneapolis, Friday, Oct. 23 , 2009.
AP Photo/Craig Lassig

Advocates say supportive housing is effective and saves public money, even though it requires upfront investment. A 2007 study in Hennepin County found annual savings of $13,000 for each of six troubled homeless people. Before they were given subsidized housing and services, they landed frequently in jails and shelters.

Pawlenty's administration topped its yearly goals from 2004 to 2008 for commitments to create new supportive housing units, before making almost no progress this year.

Laura Kadwell, the state's director for ending long-term homelessness, said the recession dried up investment in tax credits used to pay for new units. Money for services, always hard to come by, got even tighter. Kadwell said the economic meltdown also stymied efforts to open 1,000 units that were funded on paper in 2008 but not yet developed.

A researcher at the social services nonprofit Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, which conducts the homelessness survey every three years, said the recession has made it harder to lift people out of chronic homelessness as foreclosures have eaten into housing for low-income renters. But Greg Owen said housing the long-term homeless was getting tougher even before the economy fell apart because of high rates of mental illness, substance abuse and other problems.

"They had hoped for a more rapid decrease in the number of homeless people, certainly a more rapid housing of persons in that category of chronically homeless," Owen said of Pawlenty's initiative.

Minnesota is getting some help from the federal stimulus, including $23.5 million to prevent homelessness, $16 million for short-term emergency assistance and $15 million to keep families from becoming homeless. Advocates said most of the help won't reach the long-term homeless because it's aimed at those who recently lost their homes or are at risk of homelessness.

Faced with a massive budget deficit this year, Pawlenty eliminated state funding for a health care program used by many homeless adults and cut off $15 million worth of emergency aid to help the homeless and those at risk.

Advocates said Pawlenty's move to eliminate the General Assistance Medical Care program next March, for a savings of nearly $400 million, hurts the homelessness initiative.

The GAMC program helps many homeless people with serious mental illnesses get prescription drugs. Monica Nilsson, director of outreach at St. Stephen's Human Services in Minneapolis, said some are now stockpiling their medications or weaning themselves from the prescriptions.

"If you want to not end long-term homelessness, this was a pretty good idea for it," Nilsson said. "Because if you want to see a lot more people walking around downtown talking to themselves, take away their antipsychotics."

Kadwell said Minnesota almost certainly won't meet its goal of creating 4,000 supportive housing units by the end of 2010. She said state housing officials will revise the homelessness plan next year after results from the statewide survey are in next year.

Right now, Kadwell said officials don't know how many of those made homeless by the recession will stay on the streets long enough to fit the government definition of chronic homelessness - lacking permanent shelter for more than a year or four times within three years.

"The state is not abandoning or backing down on this commitment," Kadwell said. "We just don't know exactly what form it's going to take and when we'll know."

For those who have lived on the streets for years, getting one of the subsidized supportive housing units isn't easy.

Ahmed Nur, a 29-year-old Minneapolis man, has been trying for months. Nur has been homeless on and off since 1998, most recently since early 2008. He has a temporary place to live as he goes through treatment for alcoholism but has been waitlisted in the search for his own apartment. He spends many of his days at the downtown public library.

"I would be glad to have a roof over my head so I could go to work," Nur said. "I could take a shower - like, I don't know, have a clean place to live. It would be great."

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