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More Minn. homeless students would get help under bipartisan measure

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Walking downtown
Will Menday, 22, walks to the Salvation Army's Harbor Light Center in downtown Minneapolis June 12, 2014.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2014

For Kimberly Cromey, 2010 was a year of crisis. That's when the single mom from St. Paul with four kids at home lost her job as an education assistant at a charter school. Just keeping a roof over their heads became a sudden impossibility. She recalled that time after testifying at a state Capitol hearing last week.

"I was just thinking about that whole life of survival. We lived in this house for nine years, and all of a sudden, I'm unable to get a stable job."  

Cromey and her children weren't forced out on the street; they were able to move in with her mother for a time. But the family was among thousands in Minnesota considered highly mobile and housing unstable. The situation was especially stressful for her son, who was in fifth grade. Cromey says he started getting in trouble at school and missing class. 

"He's being labeled as a bad child. He doesn't want to listen. He's defiant. He's leaving the classroom, he's taking off. He's running."

Kimberly Cromey and her children moved in with her mother.
Kimberly Cromey lost her job in 2010 and she and four of her children were forced to move in with her mother, seen here in St. Paul on March 6, 2016.
Matt Sepic | MPR News 2016

Cromey said she's renting a home of her own now and her son is doing better at school. And last year, she landed a steady job at a Twin Cities nonprofit. 

Cromey said this turnaround in her life was possible because of a pilot project through the Wilder Foundation, the Northside Achievement Zone, and several other community organizations. 

In 2013, state lawmakers set aside $2 million from the state's housing trust fund for families with children in pre-K through 12th grade who've moved schools or homes at least once during an academic year. The program, CLASS Act, focused on Moorhead, North Minneapolis, and the Summit-University and Frogtown neighborhoods of St. Paul. 

The state provided housing subsidies for Cromey and 120 other families. That meant they had to spend just 30 percent of their income on rent, freeing the rest for other expenses. The program also helped with employment training. 

Patrick Ness is public policy director at the Wilder Foundation which helps run the rental assistance pilot. He says a comparison of school attendance rates before and after students' families received housing showed a measurable improvement

"The results are solid. It has reduced chronic absenteeism for kids who are in the pilot compared to other homeless kids across the state. So we know that this works. This is about the state making a smart investment both for academic achievement and also for family well-being."

Ness says it's still too early to tell whether classroom performance is on the upswing too; measuring that requires long-term tracking. 

The Wilder Foundation is pushing Minnesota lawmakers to pass a bill that would set aside $5 million dollars a year to expand CLASS Act to other cities. And backers have found strong support on both sides of the aisle. 

The measure allocates $10 million from the state's housing trust fund over two years to secure stable housing for families with children in pre-K through grade 12. The bill expands a pilot program that helped 277 students over the past two school years.

Republican Bill Weber of Luverne is chief author of the measure in the Senate. Even with a $1.65 billion budget surplus, Weber said lawmakers need to be careful about how they spend taxpayer money. 

He said the rental assistance pilot is worth funding because it has a proven track record.

"I think as we approach these issues in Minnesota, and as we look at what's happened to the growth of the state budget, and as we look at the needs that we have in the future, we need to be concentrating on those programs that do produce long-term results."

Weber added he hopes to make the rental assistance program a permanent part of the state budget. The measure also has bipartisan support in the House. It's already cleared one Senate committee and faces another hearing Wednesday.