Group forms to protect St. Paul kids from effects of homelessness

Members of Voices of St. Paul Youth and Families at St. Paul City Hall.
Members of Voices of St. Paul Youth and Families pose for a photo at St. Paul City Hall on Wednesday.
Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

On a morning last month, soon after she sent two of her kids to their St. Paul public school, a sheriff showed up at Michelle Andrews' door.

"They told me I had 10 minutes to get out," she said. "In 10 minutes, what could you do? So, I just grabbed what I could. ... It was just horrible, it was the worst two weeks of my life. You know, with three girls. I'm always trying to protect them, protect myself."

Andrews and her youngest child were left in the cold for an hour, waiting for a ride. Since then she and her children have spent some time living with people she knows, and they have passed a few nights in a car. She's on the waitlist for family emergency shelter, but hasn't gotten in.

She's studying for a job in the health care field.

"It doesn't matter how much you're paid an hour," she said. "When your rent is $1,100, $1,200 a month, and you got kids, it's hard to eat, it's hard to sleep. You know, when I find myself waking up at 4 a.m. every morning to go to work, to get off work, to come home, to straighten up the home, to cook, to make sure everything's OK, everybody's eating it, to go back to work, to get off work. It's just like it's not enough."

Andrews shared her story this week with members of the St. Paul City Council. She's wasn't alone. Other students and families told similar stories of dealing with health care costs, family members in prison, landlords who refuse housing vouchers, inadequate emergency shelter and an alarming dearth of affordable housing in Minnesota's capital city.

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Together with educators, social workers and law enforcement, they have organized into a group they're calling Voices of St. Paul Homeless Youth and Families. They're concerned that homelessness for children and families in St. Paul has become a crisis.

In Minnesota, nearly half of the young people dealing with homelessness are younger than age 5, according to a statewide survey conducted by Wilder Research.

Tenecia Johnson, a Ramsey County homeless services supervisor, said the number of homeless students in St. Paul continues to grow, but new initiatives to address homelessness do not help children.

"Each one of these initiatives is geared and focused to singles that are homeless," she said. "So, these initiatives that are making great strides in homelessness have no bearing and no effect on families and youth, and they're not benefiting from them at all."

Johnson, Andrews, and others in their group are asking St. Paul to create a task force focused on children who are facing homelessness. They want more emergency shelters for children, policies that protect renters' rights and incentives for landlords to house families.

On average, there are about 29 families in St. Paul waiting for shelter who can't get it. And the average wait time for those families is just over one month.

Correction (May 13, 2019): The Wilder Research organization was misidentified in an earlier version of this story.