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Study: Homelessness up sharply in Minn.

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Deb Holman, Benny Taylor
In this Jan. 29, 2010 photo, Deb Holman, street outreach worker for Churches United in Ministry and the Human Development Center, convinces Benny Taylor, who is homeless, to spend a night at a shelter in Duluth, Minn.
Bob King/Duluth News Tribune via AP

The number of homeless people in Minnesota has risen sharply over the past three years, according to a study released Wednesday by the Wilder Foundation.

The study counted 9,452 homeless people in Minnesota during a one-day survey conducted last October. That's up 22 percent from 2006 levels. The uptick follows a six-year period of relative stability in the homeless numbers. 

"This recession came along and it really has knocked people on their heels, both the people trying to provide support and the people experiencing homelessness," said Greg Owen, the study's director. 

For the purposes of the study, Wilder defined homeless as people in shelters, transitional housing and on the streets. They did not include people without permanent homes who may be staying with family or friends. 

Owen says he was disappointed by the surge in the homeless population, but not surprised by it, given the decline in employment. In 2000, about a quarter of the homeless population had full-time work. Now it's down to 6 percent -- the lowest number of homeless people employed at any point since the triennial survey began in 1991. 

"That's really a significant setback," Owen said. "I think it's really easy to understand that without a paycheck it's very hard to afford the things you used to pay for, and housing is one of those expensive elements of your life."

Over the past few years, there have been a number of efforts to end homelessness in the state. 

Cathy ten Broeke, coordinator on homelessness for  Minneapolis and Hennepin County, runs a program designed to end homelessness in the county by 2015, in part, by creating 5,000 new housing units. About 1,400 have been created. The program started in 2007, just as the economy started to tank. Ten Broeke says, if not for programs like hers, the number of homeless could have been even higher. 

"We've housed, literally, thousands of people and prevented homelessness and created new programs that are working to house some of the most difficult to house and most vulnerable," she said. "I can only imagine what these numbers would look like if we hadn't been doing the work we've all been doing in these communities." 

Wilder researchers haven't drilled deeply into the survey numbers yet. A more complete report is due out later this year. 

One trend they did note was a sharp upturn in the number of homeless families with children -- up 27 percent from the last survey in 2006. 

This year, 2010, is the year the Gov. Tim Pawlenty had set as a goal for ending long-term homelessness in the state. 

When he announced the plan six years ago, he wanted to build 4,000 housing units that would include support services like vouchers and subsidies, as well as counseling and treatment. So far, 2,800 of the units have been created. 

Last fall, Pawlenty acknowledged to reporters that he would fall short of the 2010 goal. 

"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," said Laura Kadwell, Pawlenty's director for ending long-term homelessness. 

She says despite the shortfall, there has been some success.

"There are about 1,700 households that are now in housing created through this plan that would not have been in housing without this plan. There are people who are in housing that were homeless for 15 and 20 years," she said.

Kadwell says the primary reason the Pawlenty administration has had to back off its goals is that the market for developing affordable housing largely dried up in 2008. 

She said she is confident that the goal of 4,000 units for the chronically homeless will be met, but she's not sure when.