Homeless count may reveal yet more people living on the street

Homeless people of various ages and situations gather at the LRT.
Homeless people gather at the light rail station at the Mall of America in April 2018. The annual survey to count the homeless across Minnesota takes place Wednesday through Tuesday morning.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News 2018

Late Wednesday through early Thursday morning, police, social workers, community leaders and volunteers will try to find Minnesota's homeless — to count them and to listen.

The federal government mandates that every state count its homeless. The result likely will underestimate the actual number of people sleeping outside or on transit, but the annual survey provides at least a minimal point-in-time read on the problem. Last year's effort found about 1,650 unsheltered homeless people across the state. That was up from 841 in 2016.

The survey also will count people in homeless shelters across the state.

John Tribbett with St. Stephen's Human Services.
John Tribbett with St. Stephen's Human Services.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

John Tribbett, street outreach manager at St. Stephen’s Human Services, said about 80 people will fan out around Minneapolis.

Tribbett said even a one-time count helps make the case for more shelters and other assistance.

“We can bring to the forefront the reality of what homelessness is like in our community. So often it is something that's pushed aside, hidden in the shadows,” Tribbett said. “The community does not want to see unsheltered homeless in its midst. And so, people are continuously displaced.”

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The St. Stephen’s team, leading the effort in Hennepin County, will check the transit system, camping locations, under bridges and other areas that are unsafe for sleeping.

Erika Ohles with St. Stephen's Human Services
Erika Ohles with St. Stephen's Human Services.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

“We get some personal information about the folks who are staying outside. So, we can tell their stories and amplify voices that usually don't get heard,” said Erika Ohles, with the St. Stephen's street outreach team.

In Blaine, the police department invites people without shelter to the former Buffalo Wild Wings at the Northtown Mall. From 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., people will be counted and receive information about housing or food assistance. They could get help with addictions or vaccinations, too.

“We've had a little bit of an increase in our homeless population in multiple areas of the city but particularly in the area of Northtown Mall,” said Blaine Police Chief Brian Podany.

In Olmsted County, Minn., a couple dozen staff and volunteers will count people in Rochester shelters and on the streets.

Trent Fluegel, housing resources coordinator for the county said homeless people tend to move to Rochester. And Olmsted County officials want to know what happens once they do.

In October, a trial effort found 123 unsheltered individuals in the county. Fluegel said homeless counts are an important factor in determining the allocation of federal funds to address homelessness.

The survey helps guide remedial actions, as well as gauge what's working or not. Tracy Berglund, senior director of housing stability for Catholic Charities, said the count “gives an indication of the number of housing units we might need to build, especially permanent supportive housing units. Also do we need more shelter? If we have a lot of people sleeping outside, what do we do about that?”

Catholic Charities provides more than 600 shelter beds in Ramsey and Hennepin counties. Across Minnesota, there are about 4,000 emergency shelter beds available.

“We're trying desperately to increase capacity right away because this is a life-or-death situation, But ultimately we know that the solution to homelessness is housing. Shelters save lives. But housing ends homelessness,” said Cathy ten Broeke, state director to Prevent and End Homelessness.

The new count of Minnesota’s homeless will likely be released in a few months.